November 22, 2023

PU Men’s Water Polo Edges Harvard in NWPC Final, Now Heading to NCAAs Aiming to Win National Title

CRIMSON TIDE: Princeton University men’s water polo player Yurian Quinones pressures a Harvard player in regular season action. Last Sunday, senior Quinines scored a goal and helped key a stifling defensive effort as Princeton defeated Harvard 8-5 in the final of the Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) tournament at Cambridge, Mass. The triumph gave the Tigers their third straight NWPC title, a program first. Princeton, which improved to 27-5 with the win over the Crimson, will now compete in the NCAA tournament where they are seeded fourth and will face UC Irvine in a first round contest on December 1 at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

The Princeton University men’s water polo team came into the season with the goal of returning to the NCAA Championship field to win it all.

It is an enormous goal that came with the assumption that the Tigers would win another Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) Championship to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAAs. The Tigers had manhandled conference rival Harvard in their first meeting of the season, 17-11, even without one of their top players.

The NWPC title became a little less certain when Princeton lost 14-13 to Harvard in double overtime in their regular-season meeting on October 29 three weeks before the NWPC tournament.

When both Princeton and Harvard won their NWPC semifinals Saturday, it set up a rubber match that meant a lot more than just who would win the season series.

Princeton went into the final treating the game as a qualifying game for NCAAs.

“It was more of the only way to extend our season,” said Princeton head coach Dusty Litvak. “You have to win this one to move on, so that’s the significance of this one. The fact that we were 1-1 against them, we definitely watched the film a lot from the last time we played them and just kind of talked a lot about how we underestimated them and didn’t really respect them, and they came out and put us in our place early. We were playing catch-up the rest of the game, and that’s not a place we want to be in. The last time we played them it was 14-13 and that’s way more Harvard’s style than our style.”

Princeton’s ultimate NCAA goal is now center stage after the Tigers took care of business with an 8-5 win over host Harvard in the NWPC championship Sunday.

Roko Pozaric scored five times, including his 200th career goal, and the Tigers also got single tallies from Vladan Mitrovic, Logan McCarroll and Yurian Quinones.

Kristóf Kovács anchored the defense. The freshman goalie made 21 saves, including six in the final quarter after Harvard cut the Princeton lead to 6-5.

“Our defense was incredible starting off with Kristóf in the cage,” said Litvak. “He made 21 saves, which is remarkable. He made some really big stops and counterattacked some things Harvard does really well with redirections in front of the cage and center shots. It starts with him. And then we had four or five field blocks which is excellent. We were swarming all over the center. The last game I felt we were a little slow to come back and help on center. This game I thought we were moving a lot quicker defensively to help each other, and on top of that in our 5-on-6 defense I think we held them to 2-for-9, which is a big deal.”

There was more significance to the win than sealing another trip to the NCAAs. It was the third straight NWPC championship for the Tigers, something the program has never done. Princeton has won eight conference crowns, but previously never had a run of more than back-to-back championships.

“We talk a lot about consistency and the standard that the program has and raising the bar continually every year,” said Litvak. “For us, we won in 2018, my first year here. We lost to Harvard in 2019. That was a heartbreaker. I felt like they were the better team that year, but we outplayed them in the final and just came up short. It’s a credit to the guys. They really just decided that ‘we don’t want that to happen again.’ And they’re going to put in work in the summer on their own, because we don’t train together, and they’re going to come back in shape is a big change. That put us in a better position to start the season. It’s a credit to the guys not just for having a desire to establish ourselves, not just as a fluke, but a program that nationally teams should be concerned about.”

Now the 27-5 Tigers get that chance to prove themselves on the biggest national stage. Princeton drew the No. 4 seed and will play UC Irvine in December 1 at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center in Los Angeles. The Tigers defeated the Anteaters 11-9 in a regular season contest on October 15. The victor of the rematch will play the winner of the matchup between top-seeded UCLA and Biola the next day with the title game slated for December 3.

“Our focus will be on whoever our opponent is in that first round and knowing if we do want to achieve our ultimate goal we’re going to have to beat probably two of the California schools,” said Litvak after the win Sunday before the NCAA draw was released. “We do have the advantage of playing UCLA earlier this year. It’s a different environment. You’re talking about the NCAA tournament. I do think our experience in being there a few times will help. I thought we played really well against SC last year, a team that was extremely talented and peaking at the right time even though they didn’t win it, they were one of the top teams in the country for sure. And we ran out of gas, but I think that experience helps us just in terms of how critical each moment is and taking advantage of our opportunities. But ultimately for us, we’ll have (Monday) off, and get back to work on Tuesday and know who our opponent is and our focus will of course be on ourselves, but make sure that we’re as prepared as we can be.”

Princeton feels back on track for its NCAA title goals after the win over Harvard. The Tigers looked like their usual selves in holding the high-scoring Crimson to just five goals. Three weeks before, Litvak was disappointed to see his team essentially overlook Harvard only to then be upset.

“I think we came in a few weeks ago to their place and in certain sense the guys thought that this one’s not going to be so hard at full strength,” said Litvak. “Harvard has continually gotten better and better over the course of the season. For us, it was more that we didn’t really show up to play last time. It was very unorthodox for our group, and if we want to be consistent and we want to talk about our standards for the program, we just can’t do what we did, which was not respect our opponent and not respect ourselves and come in thinking it’s a done deal before it starts against a team like that. It’s a great thing that Harvard put us in our place, and we deserved it in that moment. Going into today, we knew we were capable of better. We knew we were capable of practicing better and capable of showing up with a better mentality. I don’t think we lost confidence after we lost to them. We just needed to refocus and reset.”

The regular-season setback forced Princeton to get back to their defensive-roots. They put their efforts into playing the way that has made them a top tier program nationally.

“We’re a very defensive minded team and to give up 14 goals to them last time is way below our standard so it was important that we really stressed defense these last two weeks,” said Litvak. “Everybody talked about our loss to Harvard being a good thing, but that only works out if you beat them the next time, which we did, but it definitely was a wake-up call. I can say that our training over the last two weeks is the best that it’s been. I’m really happy with the way the guys responded, and it showed today.”

Princeton’s confidence got a boost with the win over Harvard. The Tigers played the way that they wanted to and dictated the outcome. Princeton is hoping it can use that boost as it heads into NCAAs.

“Holding a team like Harvard to five goals is incredible,” said Litvak. “I think they’re averaging somewhere around 15 goals a game, definitely in double digits. It’s a team that just scores in bunches. To hold them to five goals should give our entire team a lot of confidence. I like the way our defense is playing, both our front-court defense, our counter defense and of course our 5 on 6. We have a lot of offensive weapons. Today the offense was a little stagnant at times and a little sloppy, but ultimately we always pride ourselves on our defense and fall back on that so if we’re not shooting the ball as well as we’d like to, if the offense isn’t clicking we always have our defense. If we look at the energy that was on the bench, the energy that was in the water, our defensive presence, those are things we really pride ourselves on as a program. That should give us a lot of confidence going forward.”

Princeton is in its third straight NCAA tournament. The Tigers won the play-in game last year to start NCAAs (there is no play-in this year) then gave Southern California a scare before falling 11-8. They also beat Stanford in a monumental win during the 2022 regular season.

“After the win over Stanford last year, after playing UCLA to a two-goal game and being tied in the fourth quarter, both of those things give us belief that we are within sight of our goal, that this is not a pipe dream so to speak,” said Litvak. “Of course every team sets their sights on an NCAA championship at the start of the season — it’s realistic for some, not for others — but I think there’s a maturity in the guys, in terms of how much better we can get better in three months.”

Unlike the West Coast teams, Princeton only has three months to develop its team each year. Princeton is one of the few teams nationwide that is unable to practice year-round due to Ivy League regulations. The Tigers’ commitment to their individual training in the summer has made a difference, and put them in position to consider winning a national crown.

“I think there are a lot of people and teams that think that it’s unrealistic still for any East Coast team to compete for a national championship,” said Litvak. “As well as we’ve done the last couple years, as competitive as we’ve been with the big four, I still think there are a lot of people that think it’s not possible. But we have a group of motivated driven guys and of course no one can predict the future but I can tell you that we will be ready. We’ll 100 percent be ready, and this is the group with the talent and drive to get it done.”

The goal is right in front of them now. After the long build-up, Princeton is three wins from a national championship. Just as the Tigers had to do for the NWPC, they cannot get ahead of themselves.

“We knew we needed to get the job done today to advance our season so there’s relief there as well as the enjoyment of beating Harvard after they beat us a couple weeks back,” said Litvak. “But also with the foresight and understanding that we’re really serious about our goal of winning a national championship and this is just another step. Now we have to go back to work and attack our next opponent.”