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Vol. LXIII, No. 49
 
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
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THIRD’S A CHARM: Members of the Princeton University men’s water polo team celebrate after they beat Loyola Marymount 6-5 last Sunday at DeNunzio Pool in the NCAA Final 4 consolation game to take third place in the tournament. The Tigers finished the season 16-12 by virtue of the win, which was their first ever in the NCAAs.

After Absorbing Rout to USC in NCAA Semis, PU Men’s Water Polo Rebounds to Place 3rd

Bill Alden

Eric Vreeland and his fellow seniors on the Princeton University men’s water polo team had worked four years for last weekend.

The Tigers were playing in the NCAA Final 4 and, as icing on the cake, the event was being held at Princeton’s DeNunzio Pool.

“It was kind of like a dream come true having the Final 4 at Princeton,” said Vreeland. “Our goal was to make the Final 4 because of this experience. It’s great.”

Junior goalie Mike Merlone savored the atmosphere at a packed DeNunzio Pool as the fans serenaded the Tigers with cheers on Saturday afternoon before they faced top-seeded USC in the national semis.

“I was very excited to get out there; it was pretty cool,” said Merlone. “For water polo, you don’t usually have the band playing. Besides the Olympics, the NCAAs is pretty much the top level of water polo. Everyone who plays in high school or age group water polo goes to the NCAAs, especially in California. That’s what everyone wants to do, their dream is to go the NCAAs and just to play. Win or lose, it’s really just awesome.”

Princeton’s dream, though, quickly turned to a nightmare as the powerful Trojans showed their class, jumping out to an 8-0 lead at halftime to silence the throng of Princeton supporters.

The Tigers showed some spunk in the third quarter, battling USC to a 2-2 standoff in the period. The Trojans, though, didn’t let Princeton get any closer as they pulled away to a 13-3 win.

Vreeland acknowledged that Princeton squandered its home pool advantage by digging such a big early hole against USC, which went on to edge UCLA 7-6 in the national title game.

“I think that has been one of the problems through the whole season, letting teams jump up on us early and then having to fight back from behind,” lamented Vreeland.

“We were really hoping that the crowd could give us a boost and be that eighth man in the water. But when you let a team come out of the gate and get three quick goals, that kind of takes that away from you.”

The 6’3, 190-pound Los Angeles native liked the fight the Tigers showed in the second half.

“We came in at half and Luis [Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao] gave us a stern talking to and told us we needed to get our butts in gear,” recalled Vreeland, who scored one of Princeton’s goals in the third quarter.

“It was a 2-2 third quarter. We have the ability at times to keep up with them but we got behind in the beginning and couldn’t come back from it.”

Princeton head coach Nicolao acknowledged that USC’s early surge, which saw it score three goals in the first four minutes of the game, knocked the Tigers for a loop.

“Our whole plan was to try and keep it close early and try to minimize their onslaught,” said Nicolao.

“We knew they wanted to come out early and take it to us. Unfortunately, we made a couple of defensive mistakes and against a team like that, they made us pay. We got down 3-0 early and that is a tough hole to climb out of against those guys. They are so talented. A lot of it has to do with the way they play and making it hard for us to do anything offensively.”

While the loss to USC stung, the weekend wasn’t over as Princeton had the chance to end things on a high note as they faced Loyola Marymount on Sunday in the NCAA third-place game.

Vreeland didn’t look at the contest as merely a consolation game. “Our goal at the beginning of the season was to make the Final 4 and then we made the final 4 and now our goal is to win a game in the Final 4,” said Vreeland.

“We think we can beat LMU and we are going to give it everything we’ve got; we’re definitely not going to roll over.”

As the Tigers got ready to face LMU on Sunday, Nicolao sensed his players were ready to roll. “I think they were hungry,” said Nicolao.

“In our sport, you get a chance for a consolation game and you can redeem yourself. We knew Saturday’s game was going to be tough but we didn’t play our best. We wanted to show that we belonged.”

In Nicolao’s view, the Tigers were in a good position emotionally to utilize their home pool advantage.

“We had some good factors going for us,” added Nicolao. “It was the last game for the seniors and we were at home. LMU was let down from a tough loss to UCLA, they almost pulled a huge upset. I think there was a hangover from that for them.”

It didn’t take long for Princeton to show that it wasn’t suffering any hangover from its semifinal loss. Sparked by some sparking play from goalie Merlone, the Tigers shut the door on LMU in the early going.

“Mike made huge saves,” said Nicolao. “It was vital to show to ourselves that we could play with these guys. We got more confident as the game went on.”

The Tigers got a huge boost of confidence when senior Mark Zalewski scored late in the first quarter to give Princeton a 1-0 lead. “Getting a lead was great,” said Nicolao. “That changes everything, it gave us momentum.”

The Tigers kept the momentum as they led 3-2 halftime and built their advantage to 6-3 by early in the fourth quarter. LMU scored two goals in a 47-second span to give Nicolao some nervous moments.

“We get up 6-3 and they scored two goals in about 40 seconds and I was thinking what is going on here,” recalled Nicolao. “We called a timeout and we were able to regroup.”

Princeton hung on from there to pull out a 6-5 win and trigger a raucous on-deck celebration.

For Nicolao, the victory represented sweet redemption for his team after Saturday’s disappointment.

“It was a team defensive effort; Mike played really well and so did the guys in front of him,” said Nicolao, whose team ended the season with a 16-12 record. “Zalewski has some big goals and made some big plays. All year, we had different guys step up.”

In taking third, the Tigers stepped up themselves and for Eastern water polo as a whole. “We had never won a game in the tournament,” noted Nicolao. “It shows that the East Coast teams can play with those guys.”

The exciting atmosphere at DeNunzio also showed that East Coast fans can appreciate the California-dominated sport.

“It was a really great event,” asserted Nicolao. “I am proud of Princeton; how it showed itself and hosted. The other teams had a great time. The water polo was great; the crowds were into it. It was a great showcase for the sport.”

For Vreeland, the weekend had a meaning that went beyond the action last Saturday and Sunday.

“We have a great group of 21 guys on our team but our team is so much deeper than that with how many alumni who are here,” said Vreeland.

“There are 40 or 50 alumni who were on the team at some point in their Princeton career who have come back. Some have had Final 4 experience and some haven’t. It was a great accomplishment on our part but it was really something for everyone who has ever been a part of Princeton water polo. I think everyone really appreciates it and we really appreciate the family that is Princeton water polo.”

And the Tigers produced a special chapter in the family album with their performance last weekend.

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