The Princeton University men’s water polo team had the CWPA (Collegiate Water Polo Association) Championship tournament in late November circled on its calendar from day one.
“We were excited; our whole season is geared to those three days,” said Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao, whose team entered the tourney, formerly known as the Eastern Championship, seeded sixth and ranked 18th nationally.
The Tigers produced an exciting opening day at the competition held at Brown University as they topped Iona 16-12 and then edged Harvard 9-7 to reach the semifinals.
“The Iona win was good; we had two games that day and we wanted to get an early lead so we could play some of our other guys and give the top 10 players a rest,” said Nicolao, who got nine goals on the day from sophomore star Thomas Nelson and a total of four from junior standout and co-captain Drew Hoffenberg.
“We knew we were in for a dogfight in the second game; Harvard played really well. We were flat in the first half; our shots weren’t going in. I give Harvard credit, that was due to the way they were playing. We started playing better in the second half and we were able to pull it out.”
In the semis, the Tigers faced a nemesis in third-seeded Navy, who had topped Princeton 12-10 in the semifinals of the Southern Championship.
“There were five to eight teams that could win the title and Navy was one of them,” said Nicolao, a former Navy star.
“They had a great weekend at Southerns. They are a deep team and they are good swimmers. It was the fourth time we played them and we were 2-1.”
With Nelson tallying four goals, including the game winner, the Tigers were able to edge the Midshipmen 9-8.
“We wanted to control tempo and keep them from getting into their run and gun game,” said Nicolao. “The fourth quarter could have gone either way and we were lucky to get out of that.”
Princeton’s luck ran out in the final against St. Francis College Brooklyn as the Tigers lost 11-9, falling short of earning the NCAA berth at stake in the contest.
“That was just a battle; they shoot the ball so well and they have one of the best goalies in the country,” said Nicolao, who got two goals from Nelson in the final with Hoffenberg adding a goal and two assists and freshman Jovan Jeremic tallying three goals.
“We wanted to keep it a low-scoring game and have it even in the second half and then hope to wear them down with our conditioning. It was 9-9 with three and a half minutes left, whoever got the next goal was going to win. We made a mistake and they capitalized.”
While Princeton ended the tournament on a down note, Nicolao had high praise for his players.
“I am really proud of our guys,” said Nicolao, whose team ended the fall with a 22-6 record.
“Our goal each year is to get to the eastern championship game and play for the NCAA bid. We know anything can happen when you get to that game. We just came up just a little short this time.”
The team’s group of seniors, co-captain Kurt Buchbinder, Matt Pugliese, A.J. Galainena, Alex Rafter, Constantine Nakos, Ben Dearborn, and Tyler Amina, have made some good things happen for Princeton over their careers.
“We have a large number of them and they won a championship and played in two finals,” said Nicolao, reflecting on his senior class. “They did a lot for the program. Kurt was a great leader, he was a positive kid.”
With such returning players as Nelson, Hoffenberg, Kayj Shannon, Sam Butler, Jovan Jeremic, Jamie Kuprenas, Curtis Fink, and Alex Gow, the Tigers have the potential to do some great things in the future.
“I am really excited,” said Nicolao, who has guided the Tigers to three Eastern titles (2004, 2009, 2011).
“In the years past when we won the title it was precede by a tough loss in the finals. I am hoping we can springboard this to a title. We just need to do that little extra.”