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Vol. LXV, No. 39
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
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YOUNG GUN: Princeton University men’s water polo star Drew Hoffenberg prepares to fire the ball in recent action. Hoffenberg is one of a talented corps of freshmen who have helped Princeton get off to a 10-1 start. The Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. native has scored 15 goals so far this season while classmate and fellow Californian Kayj Shannon has tallied a team-high 22.

Powered by Blend of Veterans, Talented Freshmen, No. 13 Princeton Men’s Water Polo Making Waves

Bill Alden

Luis Nicolao came into the fall with a good feeling about the prospects this season for his Princeton University men’s water polo team.

The Tigers were returning four 30-plus goals scorers from a 2010 squad that went 19-8 in addition to welcoming a highly-regarded contingent of blue chip freshmen.

“We felt at the beginning of the year that we had a solid squad,” said Princeton head coach Nicolao, who is in his 14th year at the helm of the program.

“We had some good returners. We were really excited about the freshmen; we knew they would contribute right away.”

Princeton didn’t waste any time serving notice that they could be a force, upending 17th ranked Santa Clara 9-6 on September 9 in its season opener at the Tigers’ annual invitational.

Building on the win over Santa Clara, Princeton picked up four more wins that opening weekend at DeNunzio Pool.

“We knew Santa Clara would be tough,” said Nicolao, whose team is ranked 13th nationally, the highest rated team based outside of California. “We were happily surprised. Any time you go undefeated over the first weekend, you are happy.”

The Tigers hoped to go undefeated last weekend as they headed into a tough Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Southern Division road swing with games at Johns Hopkins, Navy, and George Washington,(GW).

In the opener at Hopkins last Friday evening, Princeton ran into an inspired foe. The game turned into a nailbiter and appeared headed to overtime as the teams were knotted 10-10 heading into the last minute of regulation. Hopkins scored a last-second goal to give Princeton its first loss of the season.

While Nicolao was disappointed with the result, he viewed the contest as a good learning experience for his freshmen.

“That game is always a battle,” said Nicolao, who got nine goals from freshmen in the loss with newcomer Matt Weber scoring three and fellow rookies Drew Hoffenberg, Thomas Nelson, and Kayj Shannon chipping in two apiece.

“They have a great crowd and a different pool that is shallow at one end. It was tough. We have a lot of young guys in the water. It was a good game for the younger guys to learn some things. It is good to get losses out of the way early in the year; the guys might have been a little too confident.”

Rebounding from that setback the next day, Princeton overcame a late deficit to beat No. 16 Navy 11-9 in overtime and then topped GW 14-8.

“I am really proud of the guys,” said Nicolao, referring to the Navy win which saw Hoffenberg and Shannon each score three goals with Nelson and junior Tim Wenzlau contributing two apiece.

“We were down two goals in the fourth quarter and really hung in there and rallied. The guys were disappointed after Friday; they were upset about how it ended. They wanted to come out and do better against Navy.”

With Princeton heading out west for its annual California swing from September 29-October 2, Nicolao is excited to see if his team can hang with some of the best teams in the college game.

“It will show us where we are, it will give us an idea of how we stand, “said Nicolao, whose team will face such powers as top-ranked USC, No. 4 Stanford, and No. 11 Loyola Marymount in California.

The trip will give the Tiger freshmen the chance to show that they can excel against the western powers as well as their eastern foes. Shannon leads the Tigers with 22 goals while Hoffenberg has tallied the next highest total with 15. Weber has 13 with Nelson having contributed 11.

“They may have surprised some of the other teams at first but now the other teams are planning for them and they are still playing well,” said Nicolao, referring to his freshman class.

The team’s veterans have also been playing well with juniors Wenzlau and Tommy Donahue having each scored 12 goals and senior Mike Helou adding eight goals and eight assists.

“What we have is balance,” asserted Nicolao. “Last year, we relied on two or three guys to do all the scoring and if they were having a bad game we were in trouble. This year, we have seven or eight guys that can score.”

Princeton’s balance and spirit has Nicolao hoping that his club can come through at the Eastern Championships in November and earn a spot in the NCAA Final Four.

“They are a good group of guys; there is great chemistry,” said Nicolao, who guided Princeton to the NCAA semis in 2004 and 2009.

“It is an exciting team, it should be a fun season. We have a shot to do well at the end of the year.”

Nicolao could have a very good feeling at the end of the fall if this year’s group keeps progressing.

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