FIRST TRY: Princeton women’s rugby player Erica de San Jorge blasted Sacred Heart players on her way to first try last Saturday as Princeton debuted as a varsity program. The Tigers started as a club program in 1979 and qualified for varsity in 2021, but lost to the Pioneers 53-21. Princeton will host the Army in their home opener on September 10. (Photo by Sacred Heart, courtesy of Josie Ziluca)
Josie Ziluca was driving when she got the good news in May 2021 that the Princeton women’s football team had qualified for the varsity team.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Princeton head coach Ziluca, who came to the school in 2019 to direct the Tigers program. “I was driving cross country back to Princeton at the time to attend graduation for our seniors who had a weird COVID year.”
The club was founded in 1979 and was a huge success, a decision that culminated in a long process. The Tigers won 57 straight games and two national championships in the 1995-96 season and seeded their eventual varsity team.
Transfers were discussed in 2012, but at the time the players were content to stay at the club. In 2017, students made a proposal to play varsity sports, which was finally approved four years later.
Last fall, Ziluca led the Tigers through their final club season as they prepare to play varsity. Princeton went undefeated in the fall football league (15 players per team) before finishing third in last spring’s National Club Sevens tournament.
In August, the players arrived on campus to begin preseason practice for their college debut.
“It’s crazy; it’s hard work, it’s a lot of fun,” said Ziluca, who leads a fitness program for elite senior and U-18 women at the NFL Pro Training Center in Arkansas in the summer of 2021. “The students came back on August 16th and then we started training on August 18th. It was full twice a day. I was getting them to do some programming that I did with the national players. For some of these students, it was It’s something they’ve never experienced. After every training session, they’ll come out the other side and say wow.”
The players experienced a stunning moment last Saturday when Princeton went 53-21 in the Sacred Heart game.
Appropriately, the squad left with much fanfare on their journey to the Sacred Heart.
“On Friday, when we got in the car, the Princeton Athletics had a great start party for us,” Ziluca said. “They usually only do that in championship games. They understand the importance of that, so I think the team feels the spirit is rising.”
Morale was high on Saturday morning as the players prepared to head to the field.
“Everyone got up early, had bright eyes, bushy tails, and made their hair,” Ziluca said. “Because they were up early and ready to go, they had so much energy they didn’t know what to do.”
Trying to channel all that energy, Princeton struggled in the first half, trailing 38-7 at halftime.
“I’d say for the first 20-25 minutes, the mood was kind of crazy, kind of disconnected,” Ziluca said. “The other point is that because we lack numbers and have a lot of walkers, we don’t have a full picture of our training. So this is the first time they’ve seen the full
line of defense and the like. I’m not surprised. “
One of the highlights of the first half came in the 31st minute when Erica De San Jorge scored her first attempt in the Tigers’ varsity game (in the opposition’s goal). Ground the ball in the zone, similar to a touchdown in football).
“Erica is a sophomore and a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer on our team,” Ziluca said. “She’s only been playing rugby for less than a year, which is very symbolic to me. All teams work hard on inclusivity. As we all know, in rugby, no matter your size or size, there is something for you It’s a very healthy atmosphere. Having her be the one to do that is very symbolic of where we’re going.”
At half-time, Ziluka urged her players to have bigger goals in the second half.
“It delivers energy in a different way,” Ziluca said. “You step back and look at these student-athletes. A lot of them have never played a team sport, let alone a contact sport. We have to focus and I think they have a lot to do with the competition and the space in between all these things. Feeling nervous instead of being a little pissed off and throwing tackles and working together. They focus their energy into a physical form.”
The Tigers responded, leading just 15-14 in the second half.
“It was of course our striker, coming out of the chaos,” said Ziluca, who had attempts from Priya Naphade and Amelia Clarke in the second half, with Alayshja Bable kicking two conversions. “They’re bearing the brunt of that, which is exciting.”
Another exciting moment for the Tigers will come as they host the Army on September 10 in their home opener at the Windsor Rugby Stadium in Washington Road.
“It’s going to be an exciting show, without a doubt,” Ziluca said, noting that there is no parking at the stadium, and fans can park at the Princeton Boathouse or take the shuttle from Wawa on Alexander Road. “We’ve had tremendous support from track and field athletes, alumni and parents to make the fan experience a great experience.”
The Tigers will face a huge challenge against the Black Knights.
“The Army was No. 2 in the nation last year,” Chiluka said. “I know a lot of their players, and I know a lot of players who play in all these college programs. I know what they’re doing.”
Ziluca hopes her team can build on their second-half game against Sacred Heart.
“At the end of the day, it’s the start of the season,” Ziluca said. “Our team morale is very high. Given the difference in the score in the second half the other day, I think our team knows that anything is possible, so let’s not put ourselves out.”
Whatever happens Saturday, the fledgling project will feel its presence on campus.
“I can see what the team is doing — we’re playing a long game,” Ziluka said. “I can see it happening, even with Saturday’s game. The Princeton Athletics are blowing it up, and we’re very interested in current Princeton students. We’re a faltering team and we’ve got just a little bit of support. Princeton’s Students always amaze me. They see playing the sport as learning a new skill.”
With Ziluca pushing the plan, the Tigers are clearly heading in the right direction.