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Vol. LXIII, No. 48
 
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
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HOMEBODIES: Princeton University men’s water polo head coach Luis Nicolao makes a point to his players in a match earlier this fall. This weekend, the Tigers will enjoy a home pool advantage as they host the NCAA Championships. This Saturday at DeNunzio Pool, the fourth-seeded Tigers (15-11) will host No. 1 USC (24-2) in one national semifinal with second-seeded UCLA (22-6) and No 3 Loyola Marymount (19-7) battling in the other semi.

Looking Forward to Home Pool Advantage, PU Men’s Water Polo Primed for NCAAs

Bill Alden

It was an idea that came into Luis Nicolao’s head four years ago.

As Princeton University men’s water polo head coach Nicolao watched the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championships at Bucknell, he had a vision.

“When Bucknell hosted it four years ago, I thought we should do that too,” recalled Nicolao.

“It is a great opportunity to get kids on campus and showcase the facilities and program.”

Nicolao acted on his dream and convinced DeNunzio Pool Aquatics Coordinator Greg Paczkowski to put together the application to host the 2009 event.

Last December, Nicolao found out that the application had been successful. “I was excited; it was really thrilling to know that we would be hosting,” said Nicolao.

“But the next thought was that we damn well better make it so we aren’t watching when other teams are playing at our pool in the Final Four.”

The Tigers held up their end of the bargain in dramatic fashion, edging rival Navy 5-4 on November 22 in the Eastern Championship at Harvard to earn the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s (CWPA) automatic bid to the NCAA championships.

This Saturday at DeNunzio Pool, the fourth-seeded Tigers (15-11) will host No. 1 USC (24-2) in one national semifinal with second-seeded UCLA (22-6) and No 3 Loyola Marymount (19-7) battling in the other semi.

The winners will meet in the national championship game on Sunday at 2 p.m. with the third-place contest to take place at noon.

For Nicolao, winning the Easterns and securing a place in the Final Four prompted mixed emotions.

“It was exciting to win the Easterns but it was also a relief,” said Nicolao, noting that his team had been pointing to the tournament all season long in its quest to secure a bid.

In the early going this fall, the Tigers didn’t look like a Final Four team as they struggled to a 7-9 start.

“We were hit with injuries and the flu in the beginning of the season,” said Nicolao, who is in his 12th season at Princeton and also guides the Tiger women’s water polo program.

“The first three or four weeks of the season, we were always missing one or two key guys. It was hard to get in a rhythm. It wasn’t until mid-October that we really had everybody back. The whole season, we knew we had a good team. We just needed everybody there.”

As the Tigers worked to find a rhythm, Nicolao was nonplussed as he kept his focus on the team’s overriding goal.

“We knew it would come down to the Easterns and that we could be in the mix when it came to the end,” said Nicolao. “We needed three wins in November.”

The Tigers won six of their last eight games coming into the Easterns and proceeded to top MIT 11-9 and Bucknell 7-6 to advance to the championship game.

Standing in Princeton’s way in the title contest was No. 12 Navy, who had won three of its four meetings with the Tigers this season.

Despite Princeton’s struggles with the Midshipmen, Nicolao was confident his team could win round five.

“We knew we could play with them when we had the right team,” said Nicolao, a three-time All-American water polo player at Navy during his college days.

“We needed to play really good defense as a team. We had to shut down one or two players who had hurt us in the previous games. If we were going to lose we were not going to let them beat us.”

With junior goalie Mike Merlone and classmates Jeff Cole and Matt Hale holding the fort, Princeton was able to limit Navy to four goals.

The Tiger offense produced a disciplined effort and just enough punch to sink the Navy.

“We took care of the ball better on offense,” said Nicolao, reflecting on the win over his alma mater. “We slowed it down and we didn’t throw it away. Navy makes you pay for mistakes. They are very quick and fast; they are very good on the counterattack.”

A key to Princeton’s late surge has been the work it has gotten on attack from seniors Doug Wigley and Mark Zalewski. Wigley, who was the MVP of the Eastern Tournament, has 33 goals and nine assists on the year while Zalewski has piled up 54 goals and 18 assists.

“Doug has been a great catalyst for us all season,” asserted Nicolao. “He is one of our faster players; he can create goals on his own. He is a feisty player. Zalewski has really come into his own this year, offensively and defensively. He has great skills and he channeled them this season.”

Another factor which has helped Princeton advance to its first NCAA Final Four since 2004 is the squad’s deep pool of talent.

“We have about 12 or 13 guys who can really play, we have six or seven guys coming off the bench,” added Nicolao.

“The key for us this year is depth; we can keep coming at you. Against Navy, I brought five or six guys off the bench and I didn’t hesitate at all to do that.”

The Tigers will need to utilize all of their resources in order to win a national title in front of its fans.

“It is going to be an uphill battle,” said Nicolao. “We have to do what we can to control the tempo. We need to slow it down and not play afraid. We need to give our best effort. The other teams will be jet-lagged and it will help us to have 1,000 fans in the building.”

But in realizing the dream of hosting college water polo’s championship, Nicolao and his program have already won a key battle.

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