Johnson leads in goal
Princeton's goalkeeper has three bright years ahead of her
BOSTON -- Making just its second appearance in the NCAA tournament, sixth-seeded Princeton currently features a solid core of players with a promising future for the program.
The Tigers sport a young group comprised of nine underclassmen (three freshmen and six sophomores) and six upperclassmen (two juniors and four seniors).
Highlighting Princeton’s up-and-coming talent is freshman goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson. Regarded as one of the best goalies in the country, Johnson has already received praise from coaches and other players from across the nation.
“Ashleigh Johnson is one of the best goalies in the country,” UCLA head coach Brandon Books said.
A native of Miami, Fla., Johnson has experienced a significant amount of success at every level. While attending Ransom Everglades High School, Johnson led her team to three consecutive state championships, while picking up a individual swimming state title.
Johnson claims she has been competing in a pool ever since she can remember.
“My mom didn’t want [me and my four siblings] staying at home during the summer, so she put us in swimming,” Johnson said. “After two days, the coach suggested that we play water polo. We liked it more than swimming, so we just swam to stay in water polo.”
Johnson stayed motivated at such a young age because of the rivalry between her and her sister, Chelsea.
“[My sister and I] are really competitive," Johnson said. "[She] became a goalie so I wanted to become a goalie too. I saw her playing [in goal] and thought, ‘I can do that’.”
Johnson’s siblings continue to compete in water poll as well. Two of her brothers currently play, while 17-year-old Chelsea hopes to attend Princeton in the future.
When asked about her swimming accolades and most recent water polo career, Johnson admits she has a clear-cut favorite.
“I didn’t enjoy swimming as much in high school,” she said. “[Sophomore year], my coach told me I didn’t need to swim [my junior year] if I won a state championship.”
Johnson did just that, winning a Florida state title as a sprinter.
When asked how swimming helps her compete in between the pipes, Johnson reiterated confidence in her abilities and speed.
“When the [opposing] goalie overthrows someone, I am usually faster than the person swimming towards the ball,” she said.
In just her first collegiate season, and playing for an East Coast school in a predominantly West Coast-dominated sport, Johnson’s numbers speak for themselves. The Tigers went 26-5 during the regular season, with Johnson starting all 31 games. She saved 67 percent of shots as Princeton’s opposition only surpassed the 10-goal mark four times.
However, Johnson does more than just block shots in goal. She led the team in steals (41) and finished the year fifth in assists (20).
As a first-year starter for the Tigers, she admits that she doesn’t necessarily enjoy the attention and focus she attracts from other teams.
“After my first game this year, my coach said ‘The word’s out right now. [Other teams] are trying to figure out your weaknesses.’” Johnson said.
Whether she enjoys the attention or not, she has been one of the brightest spots for Princeton this season. In the team’s six losses, including Friday’s narrow 8-6 defeat at the hands of third-seeded UCLA in the first round, offensive struggles were highlighted more than the team’s defensive effort. In five of those six setbacks, the Tigers lost by just three goals or less.
Johnson put her unique abilities on display in the Tigers’ tight battle with the Bruins. In the waning moments of the game, she launched a ball from one end of the pool to the other. Nearly scoring on the attempt, UCLA’s Sami Hill made a fingertip save to thwart the potential highlight play.
Even with her distinctive set of attributes and talents in the water, Johnson admits her training and preparation aren’t much different than those of other athletes. Occasionally, she trained with the men’s team in high school, but most of all, she preaches one very specific routine… rest. And lots of it.
Transition from high school to college wasn’t all easy for Johnson, however. Her relationship with her teammates proved to be an important part of her evolution as a player.
“When I first got to Princeton, I felt like I wasn’t a part of the team," she said. "They weren’t mean or anything, but [I was new]. Now, I feel like they are family and I am really proud of them.”