Sports: May 8, 1996

The goalie has some odd habits . . . but she's made a habit of winning, too

To anyone who watches, it might appear that Erin O'Neill '96, goalie and captain of the women's lacrosse team (10-1 overall, 5-0 Ivy), had been born in a goal cage. As the youngest member of a lacrosse family, she learned the game earlier than most, picking up her first stick at the age of eight. Early on, she played in boys' leagues, since there were no opportunities for girls to play competitively in her hometown of Cedar Grove, New Jersey. O'Neill began her career as a goalie in her junior year of high school.
Originally an attack player, she moved to the netminder position after her team's goalie quit. She assumed every aspect of the goalie position. Everything, that is, except the traditional goalkeeper equipment. O'Neill eschews the typical leg pads worn by most female goalies since, as a player in a boys' league, she was not allowed to wear such protective gear. It is a practice she has continued in college. "I'm stubborn, and it's the principle of it," she says. Moreover, says her head coach, Chris Sailer, "Erin feels like the pads slow her down. And playing without them gives her a mental edge."
O'Neill is wary of messing with a successful formula. Like many goalies, she has a superstitious nature, which dictates a complicated pregame routine. She watches Bull Durham before every game because, as a character in the movie says, "You don't mess with a streak." And on the night before home games, she heads to a local convenience store with some teammates for a 44-ounce jug of diet soda and a bag of pretzels.
On game day, O'Neill relies on a good-luck charm that former player Paige Perriello '94 gave her. Just before game time, Perriello would tell her, "Get your first one," and when Perriello graduated, she gave O'Neill a medal with that phrase etched on it, which the goalie puts on when she suits up for a game. When she steps into the goal cage for the first time, she taps each pipe in her own predetermined way.
But it is talent that is most responsible for O'Neill's success. She is the most decorated goalkeeper in Princeton history, who has earned first-team all-America and all-Ivy League honors for the last two years, and she has also played on the U.S. Development Team. Last season, O'Neill registered a .645 save percentage, held opposing teams to 6.4 goals per game, and received her second straight Ensign C. Markland Kelly Award, given to the nation's top goalkeeper in Division I women's lacrosse. This season, O'Neill set the Princeton record for the most saves in a career.
According to Sailer, O'Neill's defining characteristic is her ability to come up with big saves. "That's the thing that distinguishes her," says the coach. "I've seen her rise to the occasion in some of our biggest games, and when she plays well in those games, it really gets everybody else going."
As a goalie, O'Neill is expected to direct the defense. As a captain, she's expected to lead the team. Sailer calls O'Neill "vocal and upbeat," and adds, "She sees things that will happen on the field, and she will speak up about them. She reads the game well, and she can figure out what's going wrong on defense and what's going right. We look to her to lead by example in terms of her intensity in the cage and during practice."
Being a team leader has broadened O'Neill's focus beyond what goes on inside the crease-she must now concentrate on what's going on all over the field. "My personal goals are really the team goals," O'Neill says. "I just want to keep opponents under five scores and help the team play together in every game." So far, the defense has been relatively successful at this, limiting half of its opponents to four goals or less. As a result, the Tigers' average margin of victory has been impressive; it stood at 9.4 goals per game through the team's first 11 contests.
Despite Princeton's decisive defeats of ranked schools like number-four James Madison (which lost to the Tigers, 12-4, on March 10) and number-seven Yale (which lost, 17-7 on April 13), the Tigers were ranked only fifth in the nation. That's probably due to their 9-8 loss to number-six Virginia on March 17, a game in which O'Neill claims she played poorly. "I was trying to run things too much and being too bossy," she says. "Clearing the ball is my responsibility. I threw every one away against U.Va., and they all came right back at me."
Although the goalie may blame herself, the team as a whole did not play well against Virginia. According to attack Cristi Samaras, "We lost because we did not play Princeton lacrosse. We broke down in every facet of the game . . . [and] they took advantage of opportunities we missed. They took what we gave them and more." Even in Princeton's wins, the team has shown signs of weakness. In some games, it has played a loose first half before putting the other team away. "It's a little bit of overconfidence," O'Neill says. "To come out and blow them out of the water right away is hard. We've got to focus because if we let our guard down, it comes back to haunt us."
With six games remaining and top-ranked Maryland looming at the end of the regular season on May 1, Princeton cannot afford to let down. The Terrapins were undefeated at press time, at 12-0, and are favored to repeat as national champions.
O'Neill will be a crucial component as Princeton anticipates a run at the NCAA title. "Erin is hugely important," says Sailer. "She's been huge for three years, and there's no question that she's a big reason for all of our success. She was a big part of our three runs to the NCAA championship game, and she's going to continue." So rewind Bull Durham and bring on the pretzels. Goalie Erin O'Neill's biggest games are yet to come.
-Sarah Slonaker '98
Sportswriter Sarah Slonaker covers women's lacrosse for The Daily Princetonian.
O'Neill Leads Women's Lax Toward Title
The goalie has some odd habits . . . but she's made a habit of winning, too
Goalie and captain Erin O'Neill '96 must continue to excel for the Tigers to win a second NCAA title.

Turnaround. After a disappointing 15-26 season in 1995, the Tigers, led by 15-year head coach Tom O'Connell, hoped to bounce back this season. But through the middle of April, Princeton (11-14 overall, 5-3 Ivy) had yet to right itself. The Tigers, with five seniors in their starting lineup, are experienced this year, and their bats, led by catcher/first baseman Mike Ciminiello '96, have the ability to score. But Princeton has had trouble generating enough runs to offset its occasional defensive lapses.
From the start of the season, the team has focused on improving the quality of its pitching and its play in the field, which have been weak in the past. The relatively inexperienced starting rotation features senior righthander Chris Yarbrough and has been reliable so far. Sophomore southpaw Joe Machado, who had been expected to come from the bullpen, has instead thrown particularly as a starter.
In practice, the Tigers have concentrated on the basics of tight defense: double-play combinations, cutoffs, bunt defense, and relays, but in games, the application of that practice hasn't been completely successful.
On its spring-break trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico, the team compiled a 3-8 record. Despite the losses, O'Connell saw progress in his young starting rotation and in the play of the team in general. But after its first weekend of league play, the coach wondered if his team had reached a "stalling point."
That weekend the Tigers hosted Dartmouth and Harvard and won only one of four games, even though their starting pitching was respectable. Errors plagued the Tigers, and in each of the losses, they let close games get out of reach in the late innings because of defensive miscues.
On April 6, in Princeton's second game against Harvard, the Tigers had a 3-1 lead going into the seventh and final inning. The one-run pitching effort of junior Brian Volpp and the steady play of the defense seemed to assure Princeton a split against the Crimson (they had lost the first game, 7-3). But with one out in the Crimson's half of the seventh, a Princeton error allowed a Harvard runner to reach base. Then, a single to center put runners at first and third, and the Crimson's Marc Levy drove in two runs with a double, tying the game.
The Tigers were unable to push across a run in the bottom of the seventh, so the game went into extra innings. And with the help of two Princeton errors and three hits, Harvard scored five times in the top of the eighth. Though the Tigers staged a valiant effort in the bottom of the inning, rallying for four runs, they lost the game, 8-7.
The late-game collapse against Harvard was not an isolated breakdown, and it illustrates a destructive trend for the Tigers. Making errors under pressure is usually the sign of a young team. With so many seniors, why is this breakdown occurring? Can inexperience be blamed? According to O'Connell, the answer is yes. "The errors haven't been coming from the seniors," he says. "They've come from the players who are less experienced."
In particular, the bullpen is green. "The starting pitching has been good," says the coach. "But we're not getting enough help from the bullpen. We're working with some of the younger pitchers. Freshman Tim Killgoar is a big key."
But it's most important that Princeton make the big play with the game on the line. In a 12-5 loss to Dartmouth on April 5, the Big Green scored seven runs in the last two innings.
According to Ciminiello, sophomore righthander Ben Smith "pitched well enough to keep us in the game. We let him down in the field, that's all. Period. We can't give [the other team] four outs an inning, five outs an inning, a dink hit here, a dink hit there."
Despite a disappointing start, the team remains upbeat. And with a weekend sweep of Yale and Brown on April 13 and 14, the Tigers were still in the hunt for the Lou Gehrig division title. "No one is running away with the race," O'Connell said. "We want to challenge for the division."
-Shirley Wang '99
Sportswriter Shirley Wang covers baseball for The Daily Princetonian.

(27-5-1 overall; 2-0 Ivy)
Notre Dame 7, Princeton 1
Oregon 7, Princeton 0
Hawaii 6, Princeton 5
Long Beach St. 6,
Princeton 2
Massachusetts 3,
Princeton 1
Princeton 2, Maryland 0
Princeton 2, Maryland 2
Princeton 3, N. Carolina 0
Princeton 6, N. Carolina 2
Princeton 9, Winthrop 0
Princeton 7, Miami Ohio 1
Princeton 10,
UNC-Wilmington 1
Princeton 1, Kent 0
Princeton 10,
UNC-Charlotte 6
Princeton 6, Akron 5
Princeton 7,
Robert Morris 5
Princeton 2, Hofstra 1
Princeton 6, Lehigh 0
Princeton 1,
Robert Morris 0
Princeton 6, Hofstra 0
Princeton 9, Drexel 1
Princeton 8, Drexel 0
Princeton 4, Rider 1
Princeton 8, Rider 0
Princeton 2, Connecticut 0
Princeton 5, Connecticut 4
Princeton 8, Penn 0
Princeton 8, Penn 0
Princeton 1, Hofstra 0
Princeton 4, Hofstra 3

Men's Track
(2-0 overall; 2-0 Ivy)
Princeton 93.5, Penn 74.5
Princeton 93.5, Yale 35
(11-14 overall; 5-3 Ivy)
Princeton 6, Pace 5
Providence 18, Princeton 6
New Mexico St. 15,
Princeton 12
Bradley 16, Princeton 11
New Mexico St. 5,
Princeton 4
Bradley 18, Princeton 4
New Mexico St. 10,
Princeton 2
Bradley 11, Princeton 5
Princeton 22,
Texas A&M-Kingsville 5
Princeton 23, Kingsville 5
Kingsville 8, Princeton 7
Princeton 6, St. Peter's 2
Rutgers 9, Princeton 3
Rutgers 3, Princeton 2
Princeton 5, Lafayette 4
Princeton 7, Dartmouth 2
Dartmouth 12, Princeton 5
Harvard 7, Princeton 3
Harvard 8, Princeton 7
Rider 5, Princeton 2
Princeton 5, Yale 4
Princeton 4, Yale 0
Princeton 20, Brown 2
Princeton 4, Brown 1
Princeton 21,
Georgetown 1

Lightweight Crew
(2-0 overall; 0-0 Ivy)
Princeton 6:06.1,
Georgetown 6:21.9
Princeton 5:48.5,
Navy 5:54.5