May 16, 2012

PU Women’s Water Polo Gains Lessons In Taking 6th at NCAA Championship

LESSON PLAN: Princeton University women’s water polo head coach Luis Nicolao instructs his players in a game earlier this season. Last weekend, the Tigers gained some valuable lesson as they took sixth in their first appearance at the NCAA Championship. The Tigers went 1-2 in the competition to finish the season with a 29-6 record. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

For the Princeton University women’s water polo team, its first-ever trip to the NCAA Championship proved to be eye-opening on several levels.

“No doubt there was a lot of excitement; it was a tremendous learning experience,” said Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao, reflecting on the 8-team competition which took place last weekend at San Diego State’s Aztec Aquaplex.

“We had never gotten this far. We also had to deal with the hurdles of handling academic responsibilities on the road.”

The sixth-seeded Tigers faced a big hurdle in their first round contest last Friday as they played third-seeded USC.

“They are just so strong; it was great experience going against them,” said
Nicolao, whose team fell 14-2 to the Trojans, the eventual runners-up to champion Stanford. “They are physical, smart, and fast; they make you pay for every mistake.”

While the Tigers didn’t play their smartest game in a consolation contest against Iona the next day, they were able to prevail 9-5.

“We have seen them a few times so we knew it would be a tough game,” said Nicolao, who got three goals from sophomore star Katie Rigler as the Tigers outscored the Gaels 3-0 in the fourth quarter to earn the victory.

“You want to win at NCAAs. We didn’t play our best but we were able to pull away in the fourth. We missed some easy shots but we really played well

In the fifth place game against Loyola Marymount on Sunday, the Tigers sputtered down the stretch as they fell 15-11.

“That was the hardest game to take,” said Nicolao, whose team pulled to within 12-11 in the fourth quarter after trailing by three goals for much of the second half.

“We had our chances; we missed opportunities both offensively and defensively. You have to consider the quality of opponent and the fatigue from the weekend. We played hard.”

Learning some hard lessons over the weekend should serve as motivation going forward for a Tiger team that is only losing three seniors.

“Getting the taste of this and seeing how exciting it is, set the bar higher,” said Nicolao, whose team finished the season with a 29-6 record.

“They want to get back there and do better. The girls are all driven. We talked on the bus ride back from the airport about doing that little extra to be better.”

In any event, it has been a special ride for Nicolao this spring. “The group came together,” asserted Nicolao, who is in his 14th year overseeing both the men’s and women’s water polo programs at Princeton.

“Last year we lost the one-goal games; this year, we were winning them. We have a good foundation in place for Princeton water polo. We will have a target on our backs next year but we are excited to get going again. The girls can be proud of what they did.”