In 1996, the Princeton University men’s basketball team stunned UCLA in the NCAA tournament, an historic upset that helped put the program in the national limelight.
Last Friday, the Princeton women’s water polo team was looking to take a page out of the men’s hoops playbook as the sixth-seeded Tigers faced No. 3 UCLA in the NCAA quarterfinals at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool.
“We were definitely excited; we had the feeling that we could hang with UCLA and give them a game,” said Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao, whose team was making its second straight trip to the NCAAs.
“The fact that we were not traveling west made it less stressful; we didn’t have to worry about that one long day. We were familiar with the Harvard pool. The attitude was let’s get there and see what we can do.”
Trailing the Bruins 2-1 after the first quarter, Princeton made some miscues in the second period which the Bruins converted into a 3-0 run as they took a 6-2 lead into halftime. After the break, the Tigers got into a rhythm, outscoring the Bruins 4-2 in the second half but it was too little, too late as UCLA held on for an 8-6 win.
“Once we settled down, we got back into the game and had a great defensive effort,” said Nicolao, reflecting on the setback which saw freshman goalie Ashleigh Johnson make nine saves and two steals with junior star Katie Rigler scoring three goals and sophomore standout Jessie Holecheck adding two.
“We surprised some people but we felt that we could play with them. We knew they would be looking to play Stanford. We thought we had them at the right time.”
The Tigers looked very sharp the next day as they rolled to a 12-2 win over Iona in a consolation round contest.
“That was a game I was concerned going into it; we had already played them and I was afraid of a letdown after the UCLA game,” said Nicolao, whose team jumped out to a 7-1 lead at halftime and never looked back with senior Saranna Soroka scoring four goals and freshman Pippa Temple adding three.
“It speaks to our depth, we have had a lot of different players step up this year. It was nice to come back with a win like that. We played well.”
In the fifth-place contest on Sunday against UC San Diego, the Tigers didn’t play well in the beginning as they trailed 6-5 heading into the second half. Princeton outscored the fifth-seeded Tritons 5-4 to knot the game at 10-10 at the end of regulation and force overtime. In the extra periods, the Tigers scored two unanswered goals to pull out the win and the highest finish in program history.
“We gave up some shots in the first half that we don’t normally give up; we were playing in a fog,” said Nicolao, who got four goals from Holechek in the victory with senior Brittany Zwirner scoring three and junior Molly McBee chipping in a goal and two assists.
“Once we settled in the second quarter, we didn’t do anything different scheme-wise, we just started playing the scheme. I told them at halftime that it would come down to focus and intensity in the second half. It was one of those fun games to be in, two good teams battling really hard.”
For the Tigers, placing fifth was an important step forward. “It was a good feeling to win; last year we lost the fifth place game and losing the final game is a bitter way to end the season,” said Nicolao, whose team ended the season with a 28-6 record.
“It is good to get a little bit of respect for our team and conference. We came in with a chip on our shoulder. We wanted to show that we were better than we were seeded. It is hard to get there once but to get back and to go 2-1 with the one loss being close to a huge upset was great. It would have been a dream to win the first one but I can’t be any prouder of them.”
Nicolao is proud of what his seniors Rachele Gyorffy, Laura Martinez, Soroka, and Zwirner have accomplished over their careers.
“Every senior group that has come through here has been part of our success,” said Nicolao, who is in his 15th season overseeing both the men’s and women’s water polo programs at Princeton.
“They have helped lay the foundation. You are always building and they were part of that process.”
A key part of Princeton’s foundation going forward is goalie Johnson, who established a new NCAA Championship record for saves with 38 in the tournament.
“Ashleigh had a great weekend, she is a special player,” said Nicolao of the Miami, Fla. native. “She allows us to do other things. The goalie is one position where you can neutralize the game and make it an even playing field.”
Nicolao believes Princeton has the pieces in place to make another run at the NCAA field.
“We are excited about the future but we know the Indianas and the Michigans are going to bring some good girls in and reload,” said Nicolao.
“Every year presents new challenges. We are going to have the target on our backs for a second year. The good part is that this group has now been to the NCAAs two years and they know what it’s about. They want to win that first game and get to the Final 4. We have some great players coming back and we have a nice class coming in. We should be right in the mix. The rising juniors are a talented group and you mix them with Rigler and McBee. We have great balance.”