For Katie Rigler, exhibiting good pitching form on the baseball diamond helped put her on the path to water polo stardom.
“A business client of my mom’s saw a picture of me pitching in a baseball game and he asked if I had any interest in trying water polo since he figured I would know how to throw a ball,” recalled Rigler. “I decided to give it a try and instantly fell in love with the sport.”
But Rigler, a native of Fullerton, Calif., was not an instant success at her new game. “At first, I did not know where I was supposed to be in the pool and got excluded from almost every possession on defense,” recalled Rigler.
“About the only thing I knew how to do was shoot hard. Eventually I got the hang of the basics and could focus on the individual aspects of my game.
A key step in Rigler’s development came when she decided to play for the Huntington Beach Club team that was coached by Natalie Benson, a two-time Olympic water polo star.
“Natalie Benson, in my opinion, is the best women’s water polo player to ever play and getting the chance to pick her brain and learn from her was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Rigler, who went on to star for Rosary High and compete for the USA junior national team.
“She brought a level of passion for the game that was actually contagious for me. My mindset and commitment to water polo completely changed during my time at Huntington Beach — losing wasn’t an option anymore and I began to expect more out of myself than just having fun.”
Seizing the opportunity to join the Princeton University women’s water polo team in 2010, sophomore star Rigler will be looking to help the Tigers pursue a title as they compete in the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship this weekend at San Diego State’s Aztec Aquaplex.
While sixth-seeded Princeton, now 28-4, faces an uphill battle at the competition, starting with a quarterfinal match-up against No. 3 USC (21-5) on May 11, Rigler believes the Tigers can’t be satisfied merely by making the NCAAs.
“We can’t be complacent with where we are,” said Rigler. “We need to keep looking forward and hope to improve. Although we have had much success this season, it will be disappointing if we don’t continue to play well in front of such a large crowd.”
SoCal native Rigler has special motivation to play well in San Diego. “I am beyond excited to come back home,” said Rigler. “My whole family will be coming and most of my water polo friends from home play on the teams we are competing against.”
In reflecting on her Princeton career, Rigler acknowledged that it took her a while to feel at home during her debut season.
“Freshman year is really tough for any athlete; the hardest transition I found to be was figuring out my role on the team,” said Rigler.
“I did not feel comfortable trying to take over as an offensive leader right away; however, at the same time I did not want to be complacent and lose confidence. Another hard transition was the length of the season compared to the short two-month high school season. By the end of the season, I was completely exhausted.”
As the season went on, Rigler’s transition was eased through the team’s special chemistry.
“Getting to know my teammates was the highlight of my year,” asserted Rigler, who scored a team-high 56 goals in 2011 as the Tigers went 18-11 and took fifth in the Eastern Championships.
“Despite a disappointing end to the season, I enjoyed every second of it. We had so many different personalities on the team that practice and especially traveling was always entertaining. It was also nice to have a pretty successful season individually. I was really nervous about how well I would play against college girls so it was a relief to do well.”
As Rigler and the Tigers headed into the 2012 campaign, they were optimistic about doing well.
“Although we were disappointed to lose six seniors, we were so excited to gain just as many freshmen,” said Rigler.
“All of the new freshmen are so goofy and bring tons of energy and excitement to the team that it was hard not to be hopeful for the new season.”
Pulling out some exciting wins early in the season helped Princeton get on a roll.
“There was a lot more confidence with this team,” said Rigler, who has scored a team-high 69 goals so far this season and is one of 10 Tigers with at least 21 goals.
“I still can’t believe how many big games we trailed in and came back to win. Our team never gave up. I think much of this is due to our depth. We can constantly keep bringing in fresh players to wear down our opponents.”
In order to win the Easterns crown and earn the program’s first trip to the NCAA Championship, the Tigers had to pull through some close games, rallying to beat host Brown 7-6 in overtime in the semifinals and then edging Maryland 6-5 in the title game.
“The Brown game was a testimony to our team’s energy and depth; after halftime we got fired up and came out strong to eventually tie the game,” said Rigler, reflecting on a game which saw Princeton trailing 5-2 in the third quarter.
“Many of our players, including myself, were struggling that game and our bench came up huge. Camille Hooks had the game of her life and scored both the tying and game winning goals. We did not fold over in the midst of adversity. Instead we came back even stronger and finished with a win.”
The Tigers needed to be strong down the stretch to get the victory over Maryland as they scored two goals early in the fourth quarter to take a 6-4 lead and then held off a spirited charge from the Terps.
“I was feeling really confident about winning the game going into halftime,” recalled Rigler.
“Our biggest struggle all season was staying strong the first half and we accomplished that against Maryland. Although it was a big game, I felt really calm most of the game. The final minute or two brought out some nerves because we were so close to winning a championship. Other than that I think our whole team felt really confident and under control the entire game.”
Rigler raised her game at the Easterns, scoring a total of seven goals over the weekend on the way to being named tournament MVP.
“Winning the MVP award was definitely an honor,” said Rigler. “There are so many talented players and I felt really blessed to be chosen for the award. I think now it just means I have to work that much harder to hopefully defend it next year.”
The Tigers face a big job in trying to topple USC this Friday. “We have a really tough matchup against USC in the first round that most people are predicting to be an easy win for USC,” said Rigler.
“However, we hope to play the same game we have played all year and maybe surprise some people.”
But no matter what happens this weekend during Rigler’s homecoming, she believes there are plenty of big games in Princeton’s future.
“This is the most exciting part of our team,” asserted Rigler. “We are only going to get better. We have another big freshman class coming in next year with only three seniors leaving.”