Heading west earlier this month for its annual swing to California, the Princeton University men’s water polo team hit some turbulence.
The Tigers went 3-2, suffering a 14-6 loss to No. 8 University of California, Irvine and a 10-7 defeat to 10th-ranked University of California, Davis while posting a 12-7 win over Santa Clara, a 14-6 victory over Redlands, and 12-9 triumph over University of California, San Diego.
In assessing the trip, Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao saw plenty of positives as his team tested itself against some of the top programs in the country.
“Overall, I thought it was pretty good for us,” said Nicolao. “I still consider it part of our preseason even though we had some big games. It is a chance to see where we are and play some games that don’t really factor in our league standings but at the same time could factor in the end of the year, depending on what happens if we do well. We ran out of gas at the end against Davis.”
Starting Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Southern play last Friday at Johns Hopkins, Princeton came through at the end as it pulled out a 17-15 overtime victory against the Blue Jays after trailing 12-10 entering the fourth quarter.
“It is just one of those games you always know is going to be crazy; it was Saturday night at 8 p.m. and they had a great crowd for it,” said Nicolao, noting that the Johns Hopkins pool has a shallow end.
“It was a typical game at that facility; it was just back and forth, we are very fortunate to get out with a win and that is what I told the guys, we found a way to win, let’s get out of here.”
The Tigers are fortunate to have senior star Thomas Nelson, who matched a career-best with six goals in the victory over Hopkins and now has a team-high 33 goals on the season.
“Tommy is a great player; he has always been a tough competitor,” asserted Nicolao.
“He is one of those guys that you know game in, game out, he is going to compete. He may not have the best game of the day but you can expect Tommy to compete every time he is in the water.”
A day later, Princeton competed well at George Washington, jumping out to a 4-2 lead on the way to a 14-9 victory as Nelson and freshman Ryan Wilson scored four goals apiece with freshman Michael Swart and junior Jovan Jeremic each chipping in two goals.
“I think it helps to get that first shallow game; you come back the next game and you know what to expect a little more,” said Nicolao, whose team improved to 9-3 overall and 2-0 CWPA with the victory.
“We were able to get an early lead and that helped not worry about mistakes and just go out and play.”
The play of newcomers Wilson (21 goals in 2015) and Swart (21 goals) has been a big help to the Tigers.
“We have three freshmen who can really help us,” said Nicolao. “Matt Payne (6 goals) is out with illness, he will be back soon. Swart and Wilson have been really good. That freshman class is going to help us all year. They are really great players, they are intense. They love to play and love to compete. It has made us a little deeper than last year. I think it will help us a lot that we have more guys who can score.”
Sophomore Jordan Colina has emerged as another key scoring threat for 11th-ranked Princeton, having tallied 24 goals and eight assists so far.
“Jordan is a solid, smart player who always finds himself in the right place at the right time for goals,” said Nicolao.
“He moves very well. You throw him in with the three freshmen, we can really swim teams. We have a lot of speed. I think Jordan can have a great year.”
With Princeton falling just short of the CWPA title and a bid to the NCAA tournament last year with a 7-6 loss to Brown in the championship game, Nicolao believes the Tigers can take the next step this season.
“We have a great team, the guys get along very well,” said Nicolao, whose squad is next in action when it plays at Bucknell on October 10.
“It is a long ride. I think we are going to be there at the end. It is just a matter of who gets those breaks in the last weekend. I think last year is going to help us keep motivated and hungry. We have to play well to win this thing.”