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Vol. LXIV, No. 36
 
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
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HALE AND HEARTY: Princeton University men’s water polo star Matt Hale prepares to fire the ball in action last season. Senior Hale figures to be a key performer as the Tigers look to make a second straight trip to the NCAA Final Four this fall.

After Stirring Run to NCAA Final 4 Last Fall, Tiger Men’s Water Polo Will Have New Look

Bill Alden

As last fall came to a close, the Princeton University men’s water polo team played before a national TV audience, advancing to the NCAA Final Four for the first time since 2004.

Playing at home in the friendly confines of DeNunzio Pool, the Tigers put on a good show, ending up taking third in the country by virtue of winning a 6-5 nailbiter over Loyola Marymount in the national consolation game.

This weekend, 14th-ranked Princeton will start its 2010 season with another TV appearance as ESPNU will broadcast its clash against No. 13 Santa Clara this Friday evening in the first day of action at the annual Princeton Invitational.

Longtime Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao is pumped up to be back on the air.

“ESPNU seems to like us,” said Nicolao with a chuckle. “It is great for recruiting; we can tell the guys to watch us. It only adds to the excitement of opening the season.”

The Tigers figure to be in the middle of some exciting action this weekend as they also face No. 20 California Baptist on Friday before battling Fordham and Harvard a day later.

“It will be a good challenge; we are so excited to get going,” said Nicolao, who is in his 12th year at the helm of the Tiger program and guided the squad to a 16-12 mark last season. “We don’t know what to expect; we will be playing a lot of guys.”

Princeton will have a decidedly new look this fall as it lost eight players to graduation and are welcoming 11 freshmen to the program.

While the Tigers suffered their greatest graduation losses on offense, saying goodbye to their three top scorers, Mark Zalewski (57 goals, 18 assists), Douglas Wigley (34 goals, nine assists), and Eric Vreeland (22 goals, 28 assists), Nicolao sees a silver lining.

“I think we will be more balanced,” maintained Nicolao. “We had some go-to guys last year that everyone knew about. Different guys will be scoring this season; we should be more spread out.”

The top offensive threats for Princeton in 2010 figure to include seniors Matt Hale (19 goals, nine assists) and Tommy Parolin (14 goals, seven assists), junior Mike Helou (nine goals, four assists), together with sophomores Tim Wenzlau (22 goals, 10 assists) and Jack Ruth (nine goals, two assists).

“Hale, Wenzlau, and Helou should all be good,” added Nicolao. “Helou is moving to the 2-meter position; he has great hands and should do a good job there. Jack Ruth is also good. A lot of guys got the chance to play and prove themselves last year. They were playing two or three minutes a quarter and now they will be playing six or seven minutes a quarter.”

The Tiger defense is a proven commodity for the squad. “Defense is the backbone of the team,” asserted Nicolao, whose team gave up fewer than nine goals a game last season.

Nicolao is expecting a big year from the team’s last line of defense, star senior goalie Mike Merlone. “Mike is so smart and so athletic,” said Nicolao of the Atherton, Calif. native who posted a 0.532 save percentage in 2009. “He is so quick in the cage; we feel that in most games we will have the best goalie.”

The Tiger defense will also feature Hale together with sophomore Billy Tifft and freshman Connor Still.

“Hale is a good defender,” added Nicolao. “Billy Tifft and Connor Still will also be big defenders for us.”

In Nicolao’s view, defending the Eastern Championship this season won’t result in as much pressure as he felt last year with the Tigers desperate to qualify for a Final Four that was taking place in their building.

“When we were hosting the Final Four and I knew we had a team that was good enough to go, things got really stressful as the season went on,” acknowledged Nicolao.

“Every team has a different identity. This is a brand new team. We lost some big stars but we have some good returners who saw a lot of action last year. I think they want to go out and prove that we can do it again.”

The affable Nicolao is prepared to be patient as he helps his club find its identity this fall.

“The defense has to be solid and we need balance on offense,” said Nicolao. “We need one or two guys that no one knows about to step up. I can’t say right now who that will be. We will be looking to find the right combinations; we will be looking to build up depth and bench. We will probably have some hiccups in the early going; we will be taking baby steps in the first few weeks. It is a long process; there is a lot of water polo to play.”

And if the Tigers play up to their potential, they could find themselves getting more air time come December when the Final Four rolls around.

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