November 23, 2022

After Dominating in Winning 2nd Straight NWPC Title, No. 8 PU Men’s Water Polo Shooting for NCAA Crown

ALL HANDS ON DECK: Princeton University men’s water polo head coach Dustin Litvak (kneeling) makes a point to his players earlier this fall. Last Sunday, No. 8, Princeton defeated No. 18 St. Francis Brooklyn 13-8 in the Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) championship game. The Tigers, now 26-5, will host Fordham on November 26 in the NCAA Opening Round Game 1. The victor will then face Southern California on December 1 in Berkeley, Calif., in the NCAA Opening Round Game 2. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

The Princeton University men’s water polo team pulled off a historic repeat, but there are bigger goals ahead.

Last Sunday, No. 8 Princeton captured the Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) championship with a 13-8 win over No. 18 St. Francis Brooklyn in Providence, R.I. to repeat as conference winners for the first time in program history. The Tigers will open the NCAA tournament play by hosting Fordham in Opening Round Game 1 on Saturday at DeNunzio Pool. The winner will play Southern California on December 1 in Berkeley, Calif., in the NCAA Opening Round Game 2.

The trip to the NCAAs gives the Tigers, now 26-5, a chance to add to their 12-game winning streak that includes a win over once-No. 1 Stanford.

“The biggest thing for us is going to be staying healthy and staying hungry and understanding we have a great opportunity not just to win the conference this year but do something that’s never been done before and compete for a national championship,” said Princeton head coach Dustin Litvak. “That’s really motivating the guys.”

Princeton started the weekend with a 12-7 NWPC semifinal win over host Brown on Saturday followed by the strong performance in the title game against St. Francis.

In the final, Princeton jumped out to a 3-0 first quarter lead on goals by Ryan Neapole, Roko Pozaric and Yurian Quinones. Neapole scored another goal to start the second quarter, and the Tigers used strong goalkeeping from Antonio Knez to sustain their lead while getting goals any time St. Francis started to whittle away at Princeton’s advantage. Vladan Mitrovic, Joan Coloma, George Caras, and Keller Maloney also scored in a balanced attack.

“We knew if we played to our ability, we’d have a really good shot,” said Litvak. “I think we have a really deep team this year and that enabled us to rotate a lot of players in and out of games. And we only had to play two games this weekend instead of some teams having to play three. We’re just a little deeper than St. Francis. I think that paid off in the end. We expected to play well. We’re really happy for the guys that they were able to get it done and keep playing.”

One of the keys to Princeton’s conference dominance and a reason it has a realistic chance to make some noise in the NCAAs is the squad’s deeper roster. The Tigers boast five sophomores who returned with experience after playing plenty in their first season in 2021, and this year’s first-year players have been essential to adding depth to a good core of upperclassmen. A freshman quartet has helped offset the graduation loss of three Tigers from a year ago.

“The first-years come in usually in the best shape because they’re playing all summer with their club teams or high school teams through Junior Olympics or whatever competition they have, whereas our older guys are behind a desk all summer with internships or jobs or studying,” said Litvak. “We got four players from some of the best programs in the country and they were big contributors for their teams, and they stepped up right away.”

The depth and experience have meshed together through the season in which Princeton tied its 2021 record with 26 wins. The Tigers were 10-0 in conference, but also gained attention outside of the league and East Coast. In their third weekend, they lost a pair of one-goal games to California teams (9-8 to No. 6 UC Davis on September 17 and an 8-7 loss in double overtime No. 12 UC Irvine on September 18) and sandwiched a tough loss to Pepperdine between wins over No. 8 UC Santa Barbara (11-6 on October 16) and No. 12 Loyola Marymount (12-9 on October 20). The win over LMU kicked off the 12-game winning streak that had them top then-No. 3 Stanford, 11-10, in the Santa Clara Invitational on October 23.

“Before that, the loss to Pepperdine really reset us, we looked back at the film and we just didn’t play,” said Litvak.  “We were very lethargic and the energy wasn’t there. Maybe we overlooked them a bit, but a credit to them — they played really well. But it kind of woke us up. We focused ourselves. We said, we’re more capable than this and we can’t waste our opportunities, especially when we’re out in California against teams we don’t normally get to play. We carried that momentum into our next tournament and had a couple really great games and I thought we were playing our best water polo of the year going into the Stanford game. More than anything it just proved that the work that the guys are putting in every day is paying off. We’re not just a team that’s capable of competing in our conference or competing on the East Coast, but we really can compete with anybody.”

Pozaric scored with 13 seconds left to upend Stanford to give Princeton its first win over the Cardinal in 11 tries.

“Stanford for a long time was No. 1 in the country this year,” said Litvak. “I think they started out 17-0 or something crazy before they lost to UCLA and us. But their only losses other than us are to the big four schools — UCLA, Cal, SC. It shows we’re not just talking, we’re actually capable of doing it. It doesn’t mean anything now. We’re going to end up playing Fordham next week and they’re a great team and we’re really going to have to focus on what we need to do to stop them. But I think it’s given us confidence for sure.”

What has helped Princeton throughout the season has been the development of its defense. The Tigers have been stingy on defense which has taken pressure off its offense. In the NWPC last weekend, Brown had just two goals in the first half while St. Francis only managed one.

“We’ve made huge growth this entire year; our first weekend all the way back in the beginning of September at Navy, we went 3-1 but we got absolutely smashed by Cal (22-7 on September 4),” recalled Litvak. “Even in the games we were winning, we were giving up double digit goals for the most part with one exception. We really pride ourselves on defense, and that just didn’t show in the first weekend. The second weekend, when we went 5-0 at home our defense started to lock in. And even when we went out to California to play UCLA and Davis and Irvine, even though we lost all three games, our defense was so much better and we were missing some pretty important players that didn’t make the trip. But you could see the progress already and it just continued. Obviously our last California trip — culminating in a win over Stanford — you can’t do much better than that.”

The defense has become a reliable piece that the Tigers will depend on in NCAA play as Princeton has become better as a unit together.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things; I think our team communication has gotten a lot better,” said Litvak. “We don’t practice at all from the end of April until we get back together at the end of August, so we have a huge gap where everybody else in the country is practicing outside of the Ivies. So it’s going to take us some more time to develop chemistry and learn from our mistakes and build that cohesiveness, and for the new guys to learn and adjust to what our system is because wherever they came from is probably a different system. And then it was just figuring out which pieces fit best together and then guys fully committing to understanding if everyone does their job on the defensive end we can have success even if we’re not shooting the ball well that day. Also we have two tremendous goalies (Knez and West Temkin) that if we do make mistakes, they’re almost always there to save us.”

The offense continues to progress, making Princeton a more dangerous team. The Tigers have a plethora of potential goal scorers, and have used them all lately. Eight different players scored in the NWPC title game; seven different players notched goals in the semifinal win.

“Our centers are doing a good job with positioning,” said Litvak. “Our attack for the most part has been very successful in that we’re drawing a lot of ejections. I think we’re being patient and doing a good job making the extra pass and exposing weaknesses or opening the defense in various ways. We just have to finish our opportunities. That’s where we can be a little better. When we do draw those 6-on-5s, we have to be better than 20 or 30 percent when we get to these better teams. But our defense has been solid, so that’s helped. But I do think our attack has been successful. It just doesn’t always show up on the scoreboard.”

Litvak is hopeful that the Tigers can be more effective when they have a man advantage. Princeton will need strong play at both ends against revenge-minded Fordham. The Tigers edged Fordham, 13-12, on September 11. Princeton hosts them again, this time for the chance to extend the season and make further history.

“Defensively we’re playing really, really well; that is important,” said Litvak. “Offensively, I think we can play better. Against a team like Fordham that has a tremendous amount of firepower it’s going to come down to getting stops. We played them earlier this year and it was a one-goal game. They brought in grad transfers and they’re a very internationally heavy team and have a lot of talent. They do a nice job with them. For us, it’s just going to be focusing on continuing to play well in the defensive end, that’s where we can frustrate other teams, and then hopefully we’ll be a little better on offense.”