It didn’t take long for Luis Nicolao to realize that his Princeton University men’s water polo team might be something special this year.
Hosting its annual Invitational at DeNunzio Pool from September 13-15, Princeton opened the season by edging No. 16 Santa Clara 9-7 and went on to beat Harvard 14-7 and Iona 11-6 to make it a perfect weekend.
“It was a good confidence builder, we had some new faces in the water and you never know what you are going to have before the season starts,” said longtime head coach Nicolao.
“We felt like we had a nice squad and some nice additions and once we got into the games, it was good to see that.”
Nicolao saw some good things last weekend as 13th-ranked Princeton went on the road to start Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Southern Southern Division play and came away with three more victories to improve to 6-0. The Tigers topped Johns Hopkins 15-10 and Navy 12-7 on Saturday and then defeated George Washington 9-5 on Sunday.
“We call it the tour of death,” said Nicolao, referring to the annual swing to the DC-Baltimore area.
“Hopkins and GW have different dimensions with a shallow end. We are just looking to get out of there with wins any way we can.”
The win over Hopkins was special as it marked the 300th win for Nicolao at the helm of the Tiger men’s program.
“It means I have been here a long time and I am getting up in age,” joked Nicolao, who also coaches the Tiger women’s team and has guided that program to a 348-128 mark as he enters his 16th year at Princeton.
“It’s nice. It is a combination of being here a while and having a lot of good players.”
Nicolao was proud of the way his team took care of business as it started league play.
“I thought we controlled the tempo in all three games,” said Nicolao. “We wanted to shorten the game and milk the shot clock. Regardless of which pool we are in, we want to play good defense. I think we did that except for a couple of quarters.”
The team’s offense showed plenty of balance, triggered by junior star and co-captain Drew Hoffenberg, who has 17 goals and 11 assists so far this season.
“We have multiple guys who can score,” said Nicolao, who is getting good production out of sophomore Thomas Nelson, junior Kayj Shannon, freshman Jovan Jeremic, sophomore Jamie Kuprenas, and senior Kurt Buchbinder.
“If one guy is off, another steps up. Drew is so smart and is such an all-around player. He is enjoying our depth, it takes pressure off of him.”
The defense is sparked by the goalie tandem of senior Ben Dearborn and sophomore Alex Gow.
“Ben is back and healthy,” said Nicolao. “We believe we have two ‘A’ goalies. I have complete confidence in both of them and we will go with the guy who has the hot hand. If we are going to go far, it is with defense. I have been really impressed by our defense, we have played really good defense this season.”
The team’s cohesiveness in and out of the water has also impressed Nicolao.
“I think right now, I am happiest about the chemistry,” said Nicolao. “We have a great group of guys and we are excited about what could happen this season.”
Princeton has an exciting week ahead as it heads west on its annual California swing. On September 27, Princeton plays at Chapman and Long Beach State. A day later, the Tigers are at La Verne, Southern Cal, and UCLA. Princeton wraps up the trip on September 29 when they play at Claremont, McKenna, and Whittier.
“We always look forward to that trip,” said Nicolao. “We are playing high-level teams, we are facing the No. 1 (Southern Cal) and 2 (UCLA) teams next weekend so I don’t think we will be undefeated on Monday. We will just concentrate on our own game, playing our 5-man and 6-man offense. We try to get in as many games as we can.”