December 6, 2023

PU Men’s Water Polo Falls to UCLA in NCAA Semis, Making Progress Toward Ultimate Goal of National Title

SEMI-TOUGH: Princeton University men’s water polo player George Caras races up the pool in recent action. Junior Caras starred as fourth-seeded Princeton topped UC Irvine 12-7 in the NCAA quarterfinals last Friday before falling 17-13 to top-seeded UCLA in the semis a day later at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The Tigers finished the season with a 28-6 record. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Mason Killion’s goal brought the Princeton University men’s water polo team even with top-seeded UCLA in the fourth quarter of the NCAA semifinals Saturday.

The fourth-seeded Tigers stood seven minutes away from reaching the championship game where they could play for the national title goal they had been aiming for all season.

UCLA, though, responded with the next three goals to put the Tigers in a deficit that they couldn’t claw back from in a 17-13 loss in a game played at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Princeton drew as close as 14-12 with 2:52 before UCLA scored twice in the next 24 seconds to end the Tigers year at 28-6 overall after securing their third straight Northeast Water Polo Conference Championship to earn another trip to the NCAAs.

“It’s pretty bittersweet, we were right there, and that’s what makes it even tougher,” said Princeton head coach Dusty Litvak, who spent five seasons at UCLA, working with the men’s and women’s water polo teams, before taking the helm of the Tigers in 2018.

“We really could see the possibility of achieving that goal. UCLA is a phenomenal team with so many weapons, and they were so resilient and so disciplined that they never really crack. We were really hoping if we put some fear into their minds that they may lose the game, that they might crack under the pressure, and they never did. That’s a credit to their coaching staff and their players.”

Princeton reached the semifinals with a convincing 12-7 win over UC Irvine in the NCAA quarterfinals Friday. Vlad Mitrovic scored three goals and Killion, Yurian Quinones and Finn LeSieur each scored two goals. Kristof Kovacs made eight saves. Princeton built a 7-4 halftime lead and stretched it to 10-6 by the end of the third quarter.

“Our experience really paid off in having played in those situations in past years,” said Litvak. “I think most of our team understood how to play at that level. Our 5 on 6 was excellent in that game. I think defensively to hold them to seven goals, that’s a really potent team, and we were really intentional about not letting their centers beat us, and I think their centers scored one goal. That was a big difference from the last time we played them. Their centers gave us a lot of trouble the last time we played them.”

UCLA found more ways to solve the Tigers defense, although the game started in promising fashion with Princeton jumping out to a 3-1 lead on Roko Pozaric’s first goal of the NCAAs. After Quinones scored with five seconds left in the second quarter, Princeton took an 8-7 lead into halftime to reward the Tigers fans in attendance.

“Our energy was excellent in the first half,” said Litvak. “There was a huge crowd there for us. Honestly, I kind of didn’t expect it. I didn’t know how well our fan base would travel compared to the West Coast teams. But both Friday against Irvine and Saturday against UCLA, I’m sure they had more numbers than we did, but I think our fans were louder. It was incredible how many fans we had — alums, family, friends, that were there.”

The Tigers were following their plan through the first half. Their patient play on offense enabled them to take good shots and they kept UCLA from transitioning quickly. The Bruins got their transition game going more in the second half.

“The tough part in the third quarter was a couple non-calls that we were getting earlier in the game, and it’s not just not getting that call in the offensive end, but as soon as you don’t get that call you’re down in transition,” said Litvak. “We knew we had to control their transition. They’re just so good on counter attack. The way you control transition is not turning the ball over, not committing offensive fouls, not taking unorthodox crazy shots that no one is expecting. And we did that for the first half.”

Princeton overcame adversity to stay with UCLA. The Tigers were at an early disadvantage due to fouls even as they built the halftime lead. The Bruins showed their versatility and explosiveness in the second half.

“They were able to score a couple center goals in the second half from players that are not actually centers,” said Litvak. “They just posted up. Of course, when Vlad got his second foul, that really put us in a tough spot. He’d just been playing so well the second half of the year at both ends of the pool, and for him to pick up his second foul in the second quarter, you have to protect him the rest of the game. That’s tough to do, to have one of your go-to guys on the bench so he doesn’t pick up his third foul.”

Princeton never trailed by more than two goals in the third quarter, and when George Caras scored with 33 seconds left it brought the Tigers within a goal. Killion tied the game up, but the Tigers couldn’t get anything more going as UCLA pulled away to end the Princeton dreams of a title chance.

“For us, I think this is a really great shot for us to make the final,” said Litvak. “We were leading at halftime, we were down one going into the fourth. We were able to keep it within two at least halfway through the fourth. When they went up three late, we started to go goalie out and they scored two goals with no goalie in the cage and seven field players in, so that made the score look a little worse than it was.”

The trip to the NCAAs gives the Tigers more big-game experience. Their previous trips paid dividends, particularly in their quarterfinal matchup with Irvine which had not played in the NCAAs in decades. Princeton also had seen both Irvine and UCLA earlier in the season with the same outcomes, a win over Irvine (11-9 on October 15) and a loss to UCLA (12-10 on October 18).

“Having two weeks to prepare, in retrospect personally I think if I had to do it differently I’d probably set us up too much in those two weeks for Irvine and not enough for UCLA, and I should have balanced it a bit more,” said Litvak. “I wanted to of course make sure we got through that first round to get into the final four. With UCLA, it definitely helped us, but it also helped them. They were also very prepared for anything we threw at them. They knew last time what we did to hurt them and what hurt us at our end of the pool. I think it was pretty mutual in terms of helping and hurting us. I think you still have to play these games. As we go to set our schedule for next year, we’re going to keep in mind trying to get all those top teams on our schedule.”

The Tigers now turn to reflecting on this year’s success and planning how they can go further next year. Princeton proved itself among the top teams in the country, and will be looking to do the same again next year.

“When you get to this point in the season, and you’re that close, and it takes that much energy — physical, mental, emotional — that as much as all of us are ready to get right back at it today, which next year started today, at the same time we’re exhausted,” said Litvak. “The thought of starting back over at square one is also daunting. But I’m really, really proud of this group and their resiliency and belief, setting a goal that high for a team that only trained part of the year and the other restrictions and things that other teams in the country don’t have.”

While other Division I programs are practicing year-round, the Tigers are limited to the end of August through the close of the season in December. Princeton saw great gains throughout the year to put itself in position to reach the national semifinals.

“I’m very, very satisfied with the group with how much better we got over the course of the year,” said Litvak. “It’s really remarkable. Again, when you think about it, when you have 90 percent of the teams are training nine to 12 months out of the year — maybe they take a month or two off — and we are a team that trains three months out of the year. We do train the second semester, but it’s very minimal. And we’re off in the summer. So it’s rough to compete at that level with such a short amount of time. I think it’s remarkable.”

The Tigers never stopped growing through the year. They sorted out lineups and styles throughout the season and even in the final weeks had to overcome illnesses in their preparation for the NCAAs while fine-tuning for NCAAs.

“There are certain areas we need to grow if we want to get over that hump and get to that final game and contend for the national championship,” said Litvak. “There are things we’ll address and discuss as a team because if we’re serious about our goal, we have to continue to grow.”

The Tigers will have a great starting point to grow further from after this year. They graduate just Pierce Maloney and Quinones from their main rotation. The rest of the group that returns along with an anticipated strong incoming class will be building on the step forward for the program.

“Last year, we had that big win over Stanford and everyone points to that,” said Litvak. “There were also some circumstances in that game that worked to our favor. Stanford really did not prepare for us. We were a good program, but people didn’t know how good we could be. This year, no matter who we play, they’re preparing for us. We played UCLA the first time at their pool, and they were very prepared for us. To get to the national semifinal is a huge first step. And to have the guys have the experience playing on that stage with that kind of pressure, that kind of environment, you can’t replicate that in practice.”

Princeton’s performance this season gives it confidence going forward. The Tigers want to be in the national title conversation every year, and this year’s trip to the national semis and their competitiveness with UCLA is a sign that they are on track.

“I can’t say enough about this group and how hard they work; I pushed this group harder than any group I’ve had since I’ve been at Princeton in practice, mentally, physically and emotionally,” said Litvak. “As soon as they set their sights on the national championship, I told them that means that we as a staff have to establish a standard that’s going to put you on a stage to play at that level. That means bringing you out of your comfort zone every day. Every time you think we’ve arrived, we have to raise the bar. There are so many positive things about this group and how hard they worked and how much they actually believed. We’re right there. I don’t think people can say this is some crazy hyperbole that an East Coast Ivy team wants to compete for a national championship. We were right there with UCLA. It was really close to the end.”