Handling Constant Change with Aplomb, PU Women’s Water Polo Excited for CWPAs
MAKING A SPLASH: Princeton University women’s water polo player Amy Castellano unloads the ball in a game this season. Junior star Castellano has scored a team-high 71 goals this season to help No. 15 Princeton go 19-8 overall and enter the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) tournament this weekend in Providence, R.I. as the No. 2 seed. The Tigers face Saint Francis in a quarterfinal contest on April 26 with the victor facing the winner of Bucknell/George Washington matchup the next day in the semis and the championship game slated for Sunday. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
The Princeton University women’s water polo team will open the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) tournament in Providence, R.I. this weekend as the No. 2 seed, the same seed it earned last year.
But this year’s Tiger team is a far different group from a year ago, and over the last three years there has been quite a lot of change in the program.
It graduated last year’s All-Americans Chelsea Johnson and Haley Wan, who were two of the best at scoring and drawing ejections. Two years ago, Princeton was headlined by Johnson’s sister, Ashleigh, an Olympic gold medalist goalie for the United States national team.
“I think we’re like some small fish in a big pond in a way,” said Princeton junior star Amy Castellano, a native of Yorba Linda, Calif. who has the No. 15 Tigers post an overall record of 19-8.
“It makes us underdogs. We don’t have those big names. Michigan does and other schools, especially West Coast schools, have the big names. Having that common bond – not having these superstars – is what makes our team so great because we’re able to all play for each other. We don’t rely on one individual more than anyone else.”
Castellano is one of the Tigers forced to grow up this year. She’s assumed a bigger role with her goals climbing from 46 last year to a team-high 71 this season.
“My team has done a great job of setting me up,” said Castellano. “We’ve been able to move the ball. We have great chemistry which allows me to be open for these goals. Without them I wouldn’t be able to have the season that I’m having. It’s helpful when we have so many people that are threats on offense so not one of us can be shut down if we’re all playing together.”
At the other end of the pool, sophomore Marissa Webb has anchored the Princeton defense. The sophomore goalie started last year as a freshman, taking on the unenviable task of replacing Ashleigh Johnson.
“I hope I’ve surprised them a little bit that I can hold my own despite not being a 6-1 or 6-2 Olympic gold medalist,” said Webb, a native of Danville, Calif. who has saved 54.6 percent of the shots she’s faced.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment for everyone. Not having Ashleigh, our defense has to be a lot stronger now that she’s gone. Everyone is working together. It can’t just be me running the show. It does make our team a lot stronger as a whole.”
On top of it all, Princeton has its third head coach in three years. Derek Ellingson, a former assistant coach in the program, took over as head coach in June to replace interim head coach Becca Dorst. Longtime head coach Luis Nicolao left two years ago.
“We really went into this season not knowing what to expect because we have a new head coach,” said Castellano. “My class has a new head coach every single year. We’ve always come in a little not knowing what to expect. Derek has been great. He took a new approach of making sure we’re not only OK in the pool but OK outside of the pool. He has made us feel comfortable and been understanding throughout the whole process, which makes it easier to transition from coach to coach. He’ll just call and check in on us each day.”
As returning starters, Castellano and Webb were ready to both raise their games and provide leadership.
“Having been through last year, I got a lot of playing time, which is not normal for a D1 college freshman for any sport, really,” Webb said.
“It was great to have that opportunity to learn and to grow. Coming into this year, it’s allowed me to have more experience and have that foundation that I set last year. I know what to expect. Not everything is new. You know the teams and what to expect. Last year set a foundation for this year.”
Castellano lost the second half of her freshman year to an injury, but came back strong and motivated last year. She doesn’t take anything for granted after missing so much time her first year, and she’s become a driving force for the offense.
“Because we have such a small senior class, my role has been also as one of the leaders,” said Castellano.
“Our two seniors [Eliza Britt and Lindsey Kelleher] are our captains and sometimes, in the spring semester when they’re bogged down with their thesis and work and things like that, I’ve had to step in to almost be a little co-manager to them. My role on the team has been bigger than in the past just because we don’t have a big senior presence. I’ve been able to build relationships with all my teammates. When you have that opportunity it translates in the pool. When you have an opportunity to mentor the underclassmen outside of the water, you play more together and cohesively inside the water. I’ve enjoyed taking on that role this year.”
Princeton’s two seniors, Britt and Kelleher, have been steady starters, having each tallied 27 goals this season. The Tigers have a lot of less experienced players around them, but they have made it work.
“Last year, more than half of our starters were upperclassmen,” said Webb.
“Me and another girl were the only underclassmen that were starting. This year, it’s a lot different. Everyone’s getting playing time. The freshmen have stepped up in a big role that we didn’t see last year along with the sophomores that were freshmen last year. It’s been an interesting process to see how much everyone has grown this season. We lost a lot of experience but we’re definitely gaining a lot of experience now.”
Princeton will open the CWPA Championships on April 26. against seventh-seeded St. Francis. The victor faces the Bucknell-George Washington winner in a semifinal contest on Saturday. The final is slated for Sunday. Michigan is the top seed, and Brown is the host of the tournament that rotates sites yearly.
“We’re pretty excited heading into this final weekend,” Castellano said. “I know Michigan is our toughest competition and coming off a 9-6 loss to them two weeks ago, it was still a pretty big accomplishment for us. We’re the only team in the league that has had that close of a game with them. Even though it was a loss, it was still a big confidence booster heading into the last weekend.”
The year began with Ellingson emphasizing fitness to the team. The Tigers swam more than they played water polo in practices, but their conditioning has paid dividends. They also use more bodies than last year which helps them wear down opponents.
“This year is a lot different from last year in that this team is really deep and everyone can really hold their own when they’re playing,” said Webb.
“Last year, the starters played most of the time. We’d sub two or three from the bench but it didn’t go much farther than that. Everyone is getting a lot of experience this year and I think it’s going to set a good foundation for the team moving forward because they’re getting more playing time and everyone is learning and growing. It’ll make our team a lot stronger for future years. Maybe we don’t have a few powerhouse players like we did last year, but I think it’ll create those powerhouse players.”
The Tigers come into the CWPA Championships a far better team than when the season began and feel prepared to make a run to the title game.
“I think this year the biggest thing that’s given us confidence is we’ve trained hard enough this year, probably harder than years past,” said Castellano. “We know we’re in shape to keep up with Michigan and we can hang with these high caliber teams.”
Princeton will need to knock off three of them in a row to win the CWPA title and a berth in the NCAA Final Four. The Tigers have to take care of business the first two rounds for another shot at the presumed favorite, Michigan. Last year, Michigan won the rematch in the final after Princeton ended their 24-game CWPA win streak in the regular season. Turning the tables would be quite a finish for this year’s Tigers.
“It would be an amazing opportunity to compete in the NCAAs because I’m not sure if the seniors have ever done that,” said Webb.
“Definitely the freshman, sophomores and juniors haven’t had that opportunity to compete against that high level in the NCAA tournament. I think it would be an amazing achievement and almost like a reward for the hard work we put in. As long as we play well and improving every game, we’ll be happy no matter what the score of the game.”