Its quest to repeat as Eastern champions looked to be in serious jeopardy as the Princeton University women’s water polo team found itself trailing Hartwick College 7-3 at halftime in the semis last Saturday.
Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao wasn’t surprised that his team found itself locked in a battle with the Hawks.
“It was a struggle, we knew that going in,” said Nicolao, whose team edged Hartwick 7-6 in a regular season contest on February 17.
“Hartwick is very good, they are big and physical. We didn’t play well in the first half. I wanted to get the girls to relax and play our game. All year we have been saying we can control how the other teams play by how we play. We were doing things uncharacteristic of us. We were making mistakes offensively and defensively and we weren’t communicating.”
The Tigers, though, took control in the second half, outscoring Hartwick 7-3 to force overtime. After a scoreless first overtime period, the Tigers got goals from Katie Rigler and Jessie Holechek in the second extra period to pull out a 12-11 victory.
“We played well in the fourth quarter and the overtime,” said Nicolao, who got four goals and an assist from Rigler in the victory with Diana Murphy and Holechek each adding two goals and freshman goalie Ashleigh Johnson making 10 saves.
“Rigler had a great game, no doubt, but so many girls did. Players like Holechek, [Saranna] Soroka, and [Kelly] Gross got key goals. We would not have been there at the end without those goals. We are very balanced.”
Princeton ended up earning its second straight Eastern crown as it edged host Michigan 7-5 in the championship game on Sunday.
“We looked at it as an opportunity,” said Nicolao, reflecting on taking on the Wolverines in their home pool.
“The atmosphere was great, the place was loud. I have a lot of respect for Michigan. It was a fun game to be in, win or lose.”
In the early going, Princeton wasn’t having much fun as it fell behind 2-0.
“It was critical to stop the bleeding,” said Nicolao, whose team went on a 3-1 run to make it a 3-3 contest after the first period and then outscored Michigan 3-0 over the next two periods to seize momentum.
“They got a couple of quick goals and the crowd was into it. We needed to settle down. The game plan was to play a zone defense and keep one or two shot blockers in front of their shooters with Ashleigh in the front of the net. We didn’t want to let their 2-meter players (centers) beat us. We wanted to make them beat us from the outside. Defense wins championships. We got a great defensive effort and we got the crowd out of it after the first quarter. They were quiet with no goals being scored.”
Star netminder Johnson gave Princeton another outstanding effort in her superb debut campaign, making 15 saves in the championship game as the Tigers improved to 26-5.
“She is wonderful, she is great,” asserted Nicolao of Miami, Fla. native Johnson, who was named the Rookie of the Tournament and was earlier selected as the CWPA Southern Division Rookie of the Year.
“She gives your team confidence. Even if you are not playing well, she can make the saves to keep you in the game. She is extremely athletic and extremely smart. She is a pure athlete. She is so explosive and has great leg strength in the water.”
In Nicolao’s view, winning back-to-back Eastern titles is a great accomplishment for his players.
“We have never done it before,” said Nicolao, who is in his 15th season overseeing both the men’s and women’s water polo programs at Princeton.
“It is hard to do it once. When you win, everyone is looking at you, you are a target. You have to play with a different mindset. I am so proud of the girls, they are the first group to do this for us.”
The Tigers have a special group with talent throughout the lineup as 10 players have at least 20 goals, led by Rigler, the Southern Division Player of the Year and Eastern tournament MVP, at 61, followed by Ashley Hatcher (36), Soroka (33), Diana Murphy (31), Pippa Temple (31), Holechek (29), Molly McBee (29), Brittany Zwirner (25), Gross (21), and Camille Hooks (20)
“Over the last two or three years, we have had the same nucleus of girls,” said Nicolao.
“The pieces we have added have fit in well. We have a great chemistry; they all like each other. It is like one big family.”
After going 1-2 and placing six at the NCAA championships last year in its first trip to the competition, Nicolao is hoping his team can take a big step forward in this year’s national tourney, which is being held at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool.
“We can’t be satisfied to just be there,” said Nicolao, whose team is seeded sixth in the NCAAs and will face No. 3 UCLA (26-6) in the quarterfinals on May 10.
“The other teams will be traveling so we need to come out ready to play. If we do, we can pull some surprises. The excitement of going is over, three-fourths of the team has already been there. They want to have a better showing.”
In order to have a better showing, the Tigers need to be stingy. “It is all about defense,” said Nicolao, who will need a big tournament out of Johnson, who has a 0.669 saves percentage with 328 saves, 41 steals, and 20 assists in 31 starts.
“The other teams are hard to score on and we can’t afford to make mistakes and give up easy goals.”