Not Letting Shoulder Injuries Derail his Senior Season, Payne Helped PU Men’s Water Polo Reach NCAAs
PAINFUL ENDING: Princeton University men’s water polo player Matt Payne fires the ball in recent action. Last Saturday senior star Payne tallied four goals and two assists but it wasn’t enough as 12th-ranked Princeton fell 14-13 in overtime to No. 16 George Washington in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The defeat left the Tigers with a final record of 19-11. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
Matt Payne will have surgery on one shoulder on December 15 and surgery six weeks later to fix the other one.
Torn labrums caused the Princeton University men’s water polo senior star’s shoulders to repeatedly come out of socket. They ached plenty over the final weeks of the team’s 2018 campaign, but he wasn’t about to miss his last year.
“For me, it was my last season of a 17-year playing career,” said Payne, a 6’2 native of Laguna Beach, Calif.
“I just grew so close to these guys over the last couple years, and the freshmen this year have been the closest I’ve been to a first-year class the whole time I’ve been here, so it really inspired me.”
Payne was also inspired by the arrival of new head coach Dustin Litvak, who took the helm of the program after longtime coach Luis Nicolao left Princeton to coach at the Naval Academy, his alma mater.
“And I had talks with Dusty (Litvak) before the season started that excited me to play,” said Payne.
“I wasn’t going to take a year off. I wanted to graduate in four years. That was a big part of it too. The doctor said it’s about pain management. My arm will slip out every week or so in practice, but it’s about grinding through it. Everyone on the team had that attitude too.”
That attitude propelled the Tigers back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. Princeton upset then-No. 12 Harvard, 12-10, in the Northeast Water Polo Conference Championship (NWPC) on November 18 to win the automatic bid to the NCAAs. Last Saturday, that run ended as 12th-ranked Princeton fell 14-13 in overtime to visiting No. 16 George Washington in the opening round of the NCAA tournament at DeNunzio Pool.
While the defeat to GW was frustrating, Payne believes it will be a plus in the long run for the program.
“Obviously it’s a goal at the beginning of the year to make NCAAs,” said Payne.
“We wanted to go a little farther than we were able to this year, but our freshman year experience was good to build off. I think we taught a lot of the underclassmen in practice how to keep your head in a game as big as that, and I think it’s a good learning opportunity for our underclassmen as well. It’s not like Princeton is going anywhere just because our class is graduating. I think they’ll be even better next year and the year after that. In the coming years, it’s a huge experience for them. We definitely took advantage of it.”
Princeton avenged a pair of regular-season losses to Harvard in the NWPC final and defeats to the Crimson in the previous two seasons’ NWPC tournaments. The Tigers had lost a big lead in the teams’ first meeting of the regular season, lost the second one after coming back themselves, but held off the Crimson in the championship.
“Those two games, the one this season in 2018 and the championship last season, really helped the upperclassmen focus the underclassmen and it was a good learning experience,” said Payne. “We learned how to keep our heads throughout the whole game and not get on a roller coaster of emotions. That’s ultimately how we won.”
Casey Conrad was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, goalie Billy Motherway was named top newcomer and Litvak was named the top coach. Payne, Ryan Wilson, and Conrad were named to the All-Tournament first team. Michael Swart picked up second-team honors.
For coach Litvak, turning the tables on Harvard was a highlight of his debut campaign for the Tigers.
“I think it was enormous for everybody,” said Litvak. “When I first accepted the job and met individually with the players, they all talked about that lasting pit in their stomach from losing to Harvard in the last two years and how much they wanted to be on the other side of that.”
Princeton had hoped to advance to the NCAA Final Four with a win over George Washington. The Tigers held an early 5-2 lead and built an 11-6 lead late into the third quarter before GW rallied to take the lead. Princeton needed a goal from Swart to force overtime. Alec Mendelsohn gave Princeton the overtime lead, but they couldn’t hold onto it.
“I feel like we played pretty well,” said Payne, who tallied four goals and two assists in his final collegiate game. “The first two and a half quarters were pretty good, but obviously the last quarter and a half was pretty rough. They scored five unanswered goals in seven minutes. For a team like us that prides itself on defense, that’s a bit of a tough pill to swallow. But they played great and they’re a great team so all the props go to them.”
Payne sees a bright future after watching the Tigers come through a turbulent start this year. It began last January when 20-year head coach Nicolao left to take the Navy job, and Litvak was named the new head coach in late June. Litvak came from UCLA where he had been an assistant for the women’s team.
“I know it was hard for Dusty especially because everyone’s looking at him like, ‘How is he going to outdo Luis’s accolades?’” said Payne.
“I think all the credit for our success this season goes to Dusty. There’s no question in my mind we wouldn’t have had the success we had this year without him. He did a great job of preaching team in everything we do and all the guys bought into that, and ultimately I think that’s why we won the championship. It wasn’t about one person out there, it was about the team. We were certainly the most prepared team going into the conference weekend. We knew what was coming and when it was coming from the other three teams and that’s a testament to our coaching.”
Princeton’s team-first approach helped them overcome the loss of All-American center Sean Duncan on the first day of practice for the season to a hip injury that required surgery.
“It was definitely a gut check at the beginning of the year for a lot of guys who weren’t used to the training we were doing,” said Payne. “Our training was definitely ramped up a little this year. That on top of losing Sean was rough. But once we started to get in the flow of things we started to realize how good of a team we could be if we played for each other and there wasn’t an individual attitude going out there.”
Litvak made sure that each player was valued led by a senior class that consisted of P.J. Greenbaum, Ryan Melosini, Matt Payne, Oliver Schmickel, Swart and Wilson. Greenbaum and Schmickel were high character additions playing for the first time in college, while the others were significant contributors in the pool. Melosini was back-up goalie, Wilson tied Payne for the lead in assists with 43, Swart was a consistent contributor, and Payne led the Tigers with 73 goals and 43 assists.
“I was really impressed with the consistent focus and energy they brought to the pool every day,” asserted Litvak. “I’m hoping the younger guys can pull from that. I think it’s a tremendous senior class. Clearly they’re very talented, but I think you have to be in the pool every day to see how hard Ryan, and Matt and Mikey train. It’s really remarkable.”
The strong senior class helped make Litvak’s transition smoother. Princeton finished 19-11 overall, 6-4 in conference, improving as it weathered ebbs and flows.
“You go through all that, it brought some challenges,” said Litvak. “The guys had to learn my coaching style and I had to learn about them. At the same time, I had to learn about every team in the East. I hadn’t studied the teams on the East, particularly the men’s teams. I’ve been coaching women the last three years. There was a lot to learn about our group and the teams we were playing. There were a lot of challenges that I’ll be in at least a more educated position for next year. With the guys adjusting to my system and the different ways I run training and different phases of the game, at least the returners will be a little more confident in what my expectations are.”
Payne is happy to exit with another conference crown to bookend his Princeton career. His postseason surgery is a move not to continue with water polo, but to enable him to pursue his professional goal of becoming a Navy SEAL officer. Battling through his shoulder injuries enabled him to enjoy one more title run in the pool with the Tigers.
“There’s no individual accomplishment in my eyes,” explained Payne.
“That doesn’t define the success of a player. It’s the team accomplishment that really defines the success of a player. I think we were able to have success this year because we all stuck together as a team, regardless of how we got there. I’m just proud to be a part of it.”