Men's Water Polo: Princeton tops UCSD, takes 3rd at NCAAs
Freshman center Thomas Nelson elected to go with option two.
“[Freshman attack] Sam [Butler] got me the ball,” Nelson said. “I saw a lane past the defender’s hand and put it there.”
Nelson’s shot clock-beating, 20-foot bounce shot eluded standout UCSD goalkeeper David Morton and increased the Tigers’ lead to 9-7 with 28 seconds remaining in the game. UCSD retook possession but was unable to score as time ran out.
The 9-7 win marked Princeton’s second third-place finish in three years at the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re obviously really excited with the outcome,” head coach Luis Nicolao said. “It was a hard-fought game by both teams. It was a shame somebody had to lose, but we’re very happy we won.”
UCSD opened the scoring in the first quarter with two quick goals from attack Graham Saber. But before things got away from the Tigers, freshman attack Drew Hoffenberg fired his first of four goals to draw the score to 2-1. Less than a minute later, Hoffenberg scored again to knot the game at two.
Nicolao noted this as one of the game’s most important moments.
“When you get down three goals, it’s hard to get back,” Nicolao said. “Drew’s first goal stopped the bleeding. That was a big point.”
UCSD was quick to respond, tallying halfway through the period. This preceded a span of over six minutes during which neither team scored. Princeton broke the ice at five minutes, 16 seconds of the second period on a goal from senior center Mike Helou. Utility Brian Donohoe responded with a no-look reverse spin goal for the Tritons.
The flashy goal gave UCSD a 4-3 lead and pushed momentum in the Tritons’ favor. But Hoffenberg drew the Tigers level once again, locking eyes with a teammate across the pool before firing a superb no-look goal past Morton. With 53 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Hoffenberg already had a hat trick.
Saber found the net at the 5:16 mark of the third quarter, opening the scoring as he had in the first quarter. But the Tritons’ 5-4 lead would be their last. Nelson and freshman center Matt Weber found net on back-to-back possessions during the fifth minute of the quarter to give the Tigers their first lead at 6-5.
Princeton caught a break in the third quarter when the Tritons’ utility John Butler received his third foul, leading to a game exclusion. A key cog in the UCSD defense, Butler had never received a game exclusion this season.
“It was remarkably bad for us,” Tritons head coach Denny Harper said. “I’ve had a handful of kids through the years that I just don’t take out of the ball game. Butler is one of them. He’s played for us all game every year and this is the first game he’s been whistled out. It caused some dysfunction for us.”
Princeton drew a penalty shot early in the fourth quarter and Hoffenberg converted the opportunity on a skip shot to give the Tigers a 7-5 lead. For a moment, it seemed insurmountable. But the Tritons were having none of it, as attack Josh Stiling fired back-to-back goals in a span of just over two minutes.
With the game drawn at 7-7 and under four minutes remaining in the game, the Tigers’ freshmen took over. Hoffenberg triggered the offense from the right side, approaching the goal before finding Nelson on the left. The freshman smashed the ball home for his third goal of the game.
Stiling lost control of the ball on its next possession and Princeton recovered.
“I kind of shot myself in the foot,” Stiling said. “I got fouled, then turned the ball over. It was a disappointing end to the game.”
With 40 seconds left and 11 seconds on the shot clock, the Tigers called a timeout to set up the final play for Nelson.
As it has been much of the season, the story of the game for Princeton was its freshmen. Eight of Princeton’s nine goals were scored by rookies, and the Tigers were the youngest team in the tournament.
Neither youth nor the hot California sun could melt the ice that ran in these Tigers’ veins. In the fourth quarter, Hoffenberg assertively barked commands at his teammates. At one point, his offhand discussion of strategies to break down the Tritons’ defense drew amused laughter from the nearby media table.
“[Princeton] had a lot of heart,” Stiling said. “Drew Hoffenberg played extremely well today and carried that team through every single quarter. That final fourth quarter, he drove his team to get those extra two goals.”
When all was said and done, Hoffenberg finished with four goals, two assists, a handful of steals and the crushed morale of UCSD water polo in his back pocket. Nelson finished with two tallies, the two goals that put the game away. Sophomore goalie Ben Dearborn had five saves.
“I tell my players, when you put the cap on, you’re not a freshman or a senior. You’re a water polo player,” Nicolao said.
On the whole, Princeton’s defense played extremely well. After giving up three goals in the first period, Princeton surrendered only two in the next two periods forcing three shot clock violations along the way.
Saber led UCSD with three goals while Stiling added two. Morton finished with 15 saves, including six in the fourth quarter. But Princeton also scored three goals in the final frame, more than it had in any of the previous three.
The previous day, top-ranked Southern California thrashed the Tigers 17-4 to advance to the championship game, holding Princeton to only one goal in each quarter. The Trojans downed UCLA in the finals to win a fourth consecutive national title.
But the consolation match was a statement for East Coast water polo.
“It means a lot,” Hoffenberg said. “Traditionally West Coast teams have been powerhouses, but there’s more parity now.”
With such large contributions coming from freshmen, it is only natural to entertain the idea that the Tigers might soon improve upon their recent trend of third-place finishes.