December 1, 2021

Benefiting From Rigorous Regular Season Slate, PU Men’s Water Polo Tops Fordham in NCAA Opener

MAKING A SPLASH: Princeton University men’s water polo player Roko Pozaric fires the ball in a game earlier this season. Last Saturday, freshman star Pozaric scored four goals to help 19th-ranked Princeton defeat No. 16 Fordham 17-8 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The Tigers, now 26-7, will face No. UCLA on December 2 in Los Angeles in the second opening-round game of the tournament with the victor advancing to the semis on December 4. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

The Princeton University men’s water polo team had some options when it set up its schedule this year.

The Tigers could have looked at their less experienced roster after a year off from competition and scheduled to build momentum against East Coast teams. Instead, they challenged themselves from the get-go against a parade of talented West Coast squads and the resulting reward is a trip to the second opening-round game of the NCAA tournament.

“To me, it was worth the risk,” said Princeton head coach Dustin Litvak.

“Otherwise we’d end up playing the same teams we always play every weekend. If that was going to be the reality, it was almost going to be better that we’d end up just practicing. If we ended up getting a ‘no’ on our two California trips, I was fine with just practicing through those weekends. Thankfully it worked out and we were able to go out there and play a lot of great teams at a lot of great pools.”

Last Saturday, things worked out very well for the Tigers as 10th-ranked Princeton pulled away from 16th-ranked Fordham for a 17-8 win in the first opening-round game of the NCAAs. It is the program’s first NCAA win since 2011. The Tigers will play at No. 1 UCLA in the second opening-round game of the NCAA tournament Thursday.

“We want to compete and we want to play with confidence,” said Litvak. “If we do that, we give ourselves a chance.”

Princeton has built confidence after facing a rigorous regular season schedule. The Tigers played Cal twice, took on Stanford, Pepperdine, San Jose State, Pacific, UC Irvine, California Baptist, and Loyola Marymount sprinkled in with East Coast top-20 teams like Bucknell, Harvard, St. Francis, and Navy.

“There’s a reason that we had such an ambitious schedule – playing Cal twice, playing UOP, going out to California and playing LMU, Pepperdine and Irvine within 24 hours all at three different locations, San Jose State, and on and on,” said Litvak.

“We played several top 10 teams this year – Stanford as well. It was to really prove to ourselves that we can compete with anyone. The only way to know that is to do it. We competed with Cal twice, we competed with San Jose State. There’s been maybe two games all year where we didn’t show up to play. I think for us, having that schedule to fall back on, having played some of these teams, it’s not going to be the first time we see a highly ranked team. That’s important.”

Princeton’s win over Fordham was its program record 26th of the season against just seven losses. The Tigers also beat Fordham, 13-6, early in the season to finish off their own Princeton Invite.

“This is a whole week to prepare for one team,” said Litvak.

“I thought we had a good amount of film on them and were able to really dial in and focus on what they like to do and try to figure out how to stop some of their better players. I was really happy we were able to prevent No. 6 and No. 8 from scoring, two of their three leading scorers. That was something we talked about throughout the week and before the game so that was key.”

Princeton also used its solid depth to stretch an early lead. The Tigers built a 4-1 lead after the first quarter and they maintained a three-goal edge at halftime. It was a 10-6 game before the Tigers scored five straight goals to close the third quarter.

“We had opportunities before that,” said Litvak. “We were a little tight and forced some things early on and didn’t really give ourselves enough time to attack them appropriately and give them a chance to make a mistake where we could open things up. We were forcing things early. When we settled down a bit, that helped. And then they started to get tired and a few of their key players got in foul trouble and we were really able to open things up in transition and we knew if we could just keep going and going, it would eventually pay off.”

In the matchup against UCLA, the Tigers will take on a team that has gotten hot at the right time. The Bruins come off winning the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship as the No. 3 seed. They are 19-3.

“They’re obviously really talented, really disciplined, really well coached, and really deep,” said Litvak.

“The biggest challenge for us is not to succumb to the nerves and give them too much credit. We have to have confidence.”

Litvak served as an assistant at UCLA for the men’s and women’s water polo teams before moving to Princeton three years ago.

“There’s nobody on this (UCLA) team that I coached or recruited because my last couple of years at UCLA were on the women’s side,” said Litvak.

“But I’m obviously very familiar with the entire program and Adam (Wright) and the entire staff and the facility of course. We’re just happy to be playing. After going through an entire season apart and then having almost a brand new team to be honest, it’s been such a pleasure to coach these guys and go to work every day. I’m just excited to have another opportunity to work with them for another week.”

Freshman star Roko Pozaric led the way for the Tigers against Fordham with four goals. Sophomore Pierce Maloney had three goals and junior Keller Maloney was one of three Tiger players with two goals apiece. The four-goal effort continued the strong debut collegiate season for
Pozaric, the Northeast Water Polo Conference Rookie of the Year. The lightning-fast Croatian had 62 goals and 40 assists in the regular season.

“None of that — his talent or speed — was a surprise,” said Litvak.

“The biggest surprise is how quickly he adapted to our system. We play a completely different system than he’s used to in Croatia and from his team, and the American culture and school and everything else. It’s not uncommon to have someone come in from somewhere else and not want to change anything and just completely do the same thing they’ve always done. His adaptability and coachability has been incredible from day one.”

Keller Maloney returned from taking a gap year with his brother, sophomore Pierce Maloney, to earn First-Team All-Conference acclaim after leading the Tigers in scoring with 65 goals and finishing second to Pozaric with 37 assists. The junior enjoyed a career year.

“We have so many guys that are very capable of scoring the ball,” said Litvak. “Keller’s numbers have jumped, but it’s really just consistent and diligent preparation on his part.”

Princeton did not know exactly how it would look upon its return with so many new parts and players moving into bigger roles. The squad tried to stay in contact over the year off while the Ivy League banned competitions through the winter. It returned hungry and found plenty of motivation together.

“Guys that previously were questioning whether they wanted to continue playing water polo or not with the academic rigors of Princeton and other opportunities,” said Litvak.

“When you have something taken away from you that you think is within your control all the time and all of a sudden is not in within control, you give it greater value knowing it could be taken away from you and it’s not completely your choice. That reset the group.”

Princeton has received strong leadership from Billy Motherway, Mitchell Cooper, and Wyatt Benson. The three senior captains have set a standard that Litvak is hopeful that his younger players can emulate in future seasons. They allowed Litvak to shift his energies this year.

“I’ve put a lot more trust and faith in those guys and we make a lot of collective decisions on a lot of different situations that maybe previously I would have tried to take too much control over myself,” said Litvak. “It was a reset for myself too.”

Princeton had to overcome not having the sort of time in the pool together last year that many other college teams did. The Tigers played catch-up against a challenging list of opponents, and their season-long experience has put the squad in a better position as it enters the NCAA tournament.

“The inexperience thing was knowing we have two freshman classes basically,” said Litvak.

“Our sophomores who played good minutes, didn’t see any pool time last year as far as games. They were able to train, that was it. We have four sophomores and five in our freshman class who this year was the first time they ever played a game. They have to get that experience. Last weekend was great because we had a packed house for Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) Championships. We had a phenomenal crowd and playing in that environment hopefully will replicate what we’ll see out in California.”

Princeton has been preparing all year for this opportunity. The Tigers are looking to add to their record-setting win total and advance to the Final Four that will be held at UCLA from December 4-5.

“We’re happy to be representing our conference and the Ivy League and the East Coast really,” said Litvak. “We have a great squad. We’re playing well and we’ll see what happens.”