Luis Nicolao is facing a problem in guiding his Princeton University women’s water polo team that would be the envy of most coaches.
With Princeton coming off a 28-6 season and CWPA eastern title, Tiger head coach Nicolao’s cupboard may be too full as he welcomes back most of the stars from that squad.
“Our practices have been great; we have 12 or 13 great players and the scrimmages have been very good and very competitive,” said Nicolao, whose team earned a fifth-place finish at the 2013 NCAA Championships.
“We can’t start more than six players but 11 think they should start and they are right. I tell them the key is depth. We need to play the whole team and get the bench to where the players are interchangeable.”
Princeton has turned heads in the water polo world, rising to seventh in the latest national poll before it has even played a game this season.
“It’s nice to have the ranking but the girls know that it means nothing,” said Nicolao.
“It puts a bigger target on our backs. The only ranking that matters is being No. 1 in the east at the end of April.”
The Tigers will get their 2014 season underway this weekend by hosting their annual Princeton Invitational and the players are primed to show how good they are.
“They are excited to get started,” said Nicolao. “There is a level of confidence but they know last year doesn’t matter. There are a lot of teams gunning for us, it is going to be very tough.”
With sophomore star goalie Ashleigh Johnson returning after earning third-team All-American honors in her debut campaign, the Tigers will be tough to score on.
“Ashleigh had a really great summer playing internationally,” said Nicolao of Johnson, who helped the U.S. win the gold medal at the 2013 FINA Junior World Championships last summer and was named the tournament’s top goalie.
“She is a special athlete. She is so good she gives the chance to win any game. We are fortunate to have her.”
The Tigers are fortunate to have some other good defenders around Johnson.
“We are a very strong defensive team,” asserted Nicolao. “We have gotten even stronger with the addition of freshmen Morgan Hallock, she is 6’2 and plays with the junior national team, and another freshman, Sydney Saxe. We have only gotten deeper.”
Princeton is also deep on offense, led by senior co-captain Katie Rigler, who tallied 66 goals and 15 assists last season.
“Rigler is doing great; she is a senior and should have a big year,” said Nicolao.
“But the key is balance, we have seven or eight girls who can score 30 goals so we can’t key on Katie,” said Nicolao, citing such stars as sophomore Diana Murphy and a quartet of talented juniors in Jessie Holecheck, Taylor Dunstan, Ashley Hatcher, and Camille Hooks. “We have a lot of firepower, it is a matter of playing well.”
In Nicolao’s view, the Tigers have a chance to do very well this season.
“I think our potential is unlimited,” said Nicolao. “We can’t let emotion get the best of us and we can’t think we have won games before even playing them. We have to play the game and execute.”
As Princeton welcomes Wagner, Iona, and the NYAC this weekend for its Invitational, it is looking to execute well.
“It will be nice to get some games and see some different opponents,” said Nicolao.
“We have a good first month; we play Michigan, UC San Diego, and Hartwick. We have some early challenges but we have to keep our perspective because nothing is won in February.”