Women's Water Polo: Tigers finish 6th at NCAA Championships
An impressive season came to an end for the women’s water polo team, which finished sixth at NCAA Championships this weekend. The Tigers lost to No. 3-seed University of Southern California in the quarter-finals on Friday, as the Trojans overpowered Princeton 14-2, leaving the Tigers battling over the weekend for fifth position. Princeton (29-6) won its first consolation bout 9-5 over Iona before falling to Loyola Marymount 15-11 in the fifth-place game.
After winning the CWPA Eastern Championship and qualifying for the NCAAs for the first time in program history, Princeton went into its first-round game as an underdog against West Coast power USC. The Tigers matched up well against the Trojans in the early exchanges, building up a 4-2 shot advantage in the first five minutes.
However, the Trojans got themselves on the board with a flurry of late goals to close the first quarter up 3-0. They continued to press the Tigers and scored three more times without reply until freshman attack Kelly Gross pulled one back with 57 seconds left in the half.
“We were able to hang in through the first quarter because our defense was so intense,” senior center defender Audrey Zak said. “But their long hours of training and conditioning ultimately pulled them through. That’s why they’re the No. 3-seed.”
If the Tigers had hoped that the interval would break the Trojans’ momentum, they were disappointed, because the Trojans produced an even more dominant performance in the second half as they cruised to victory. Freshman utility Camille Hooks scored the only other goal for the Tigers.
“We fought hard against USC, but it would have been a huge upset had we beat them," Zak said. "After the game, we simply put it out of our minds and focused on Iona, which we knew we should beat.”
Focus they did, as the Tigers ultimately controlled a tricky game against the Gaels, who were coming off a similarly lopsided 14-3 loss to UCLA in their second straight appearance in the tournament. A win for either team would send it into the fifth-place playoff, while a loss would leave it scrapping for seventh position on the final day.
After junior attack Brittany Zwirner and sophomore utility Katie Rigler put Princeton up 2-0, Iona responded immediately with a pair of goals of its own, tying the game at two apiece at the end of the first quarter. The Tigers then took the lead for good in the second, as they rattled off three unanswered goals to take a 5-2 lead into halftime.
The Gaels seemed to be coming back after they used a 3-1 run to pull within one goal, but the Tigers' defense held strong and shut out any offensive threat for the remainder of the game. Rigler led the Tigers with three goals in the game. Senior goalie Kristen Ward made 10 saves, in the process becoming the all-time saves leader for Princeton with 894 total, breaking a record previously held by Ognjenka Vumirovic ’00.
On Sunday, Princeton matched Loyola Marymount goal-for-goal until a late rally gave the Lions an 8-6 lead entering halftime. The Tigers have had more than their share of comeback victories this postseason, but they could not repeat the magic again.
Hooks brought Princeton within 12-11 midway through the fourth quarter, but Loyola Marymount added three insurance goals without allowing another ball in the cage. Kimberly Benedetti led the Lions with seven goals in her final collegiate game.
Still, the Tigers have to be happy with a sixth-place finish, their best national showing ever. Aside from the Eastern Championship victory and inaugural entry into the NCAA Championships, the current squad surpassed the previous program record of 27 wins in a season, set in 2005. Moreover, the team remains in good stead for the next couple of seasons with freshmen and sophomores composing the majority of the squad, including Rigler, Princeton’s top scorer this spring.
“As a senior, I couldn’t have asked for more this season,” Zak said.
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