Last spring, the Princeton University women’s water polo team developed a penchant for losing the close games.
The Tigers lost four contests by one goal and six by two goals in 2011 on the way to an 18-11 record.
In the first weekend of the 2012 season, the Tigers pulled out a 6-5 win over Colorado State, setting a different tone in the view of longtime head coach Luis Nicolao.
“We got off to a good start,” said Nicolao. “We had a 1-goal win over Colorado State and won some games easily after that; that was a good sign.”
Indeed, the Tigers reeled off 14 wins before a loss to No. 12 San Jose State. Heading into last weekend’s CWPA Southern Division Championships at Bucknell, Princeton stood at 22-4 and ranked 14th nationally.
“We were excited to get to the end of the year,” said Nicolao, reflecting on his team’s mood as it looked ahead to the Southerns and the Eastern Championships to follow. “We are not taking anyone lightly but we are confident.”
Last Saturday, Princeton showed its confidence was justified as it beat George Washington 11-8 and host Bucknell 14-6 in opening day action.
“We came out slow against George Washington but we had a nice second quarter,” said Nicolao.
“Playing Bucknell in their pool was a challenge. We had a lot of girls scoring and the defense played well. We held them to two goals in the second half, you don’t see that too often.”
In the finals, Princeton faced a Brown team it had beaten 18-8 in regular season play. The rematch, though, turned into a nailbiter and Princeton continued its habit of winning the close games this year, edging the Bears 9-8 to win the title.
“Brown is no doubt a quality team; our first game was not a true measure of their team,” said Nicolao. “They play a zone defense and all of our shots were falling that game. On Sunday, the shots weren’t going in.”
Junior star Brittany Zwirner hit the biggest shot for Princeton in the win over Brown, scoring the game-winning goal with 2.4 seconds left. Zwirner finished the game with four goals while sophomore Katie Rigler chipped in three.
“Brittany was out with an injury before; it is important to have her back,” said Nicolao.
“Rigler can dominate; she is a great player. As a sophomore, she has gained more confidence and she realizes she can dominate.”
Longtime coach Nicolao has been taken aback by the dominance his team has shown this spring.
“No doubt, I am surprised,” said Nicolao, who is in his 14th year at the helm of the program.
“I didn’t expect to have only lost four games to this point. We have a lot of depth and lot of balance. We have eight girls who have scored around 30 goals. All year, we have had a nice balance of scoring. If two girls are off, two others will step up.”
That balance paved the way to Princeton’s first Southern crown since 2008 and its seventh overall.
“Any time you get a title, it is great,” said Nicolao, reflecting on the championship. “Our ultimate goal is to win the Easterns and go to the NCAAs.”
In order to achieve that goal in that competition, which is being held at Brown from April 27-29, Princeton will need to tighten things up.
“We have to play really good defense,” said Nicolao. “We are going to see some tough opposition. We can’t rely on offense. If we string together three good defensive games, we have a chance. There are three or four teams that can win.”