The men’s water polo team rounded out its 2012 season with a third-place finish at Eastern Championships this weekend at DeNunzio Pool. The Tigers had hoped to see a repeat of their 2011 postseason run, in which they not only took first at Easterns but also went on to take third at the NCAA Championships, but St. Francis won the tournament and the automatic bid to nationals.
In Friday’s opening round, Princeton (17-12 overall, 5-3 CWPA South) defeated one of the toughest opponents it would see in the tournament, downing Brown 10-7. The No. 14 Bears got off to a dominating start with two fast goals, only for a pair of goals by senior attacker Tim Wenzlau and sophomore attacker Drew Hoffenberg to even the score at 2-2 after one quarter. Brown found the net first again in the second period, but Princeton rebounded once more with a 4-1 scoring rally to take a definitive lead going into halftime.
Despite Brown’s ramped-up offensive effort in the third quarter, which forced freshman goalie Alex Gow to make six of his 12 total saves, Princeton outscored Brown 2-1 in the period. The Tigers went goal-for-goal with the Bears in the final quarter, with each team scoring twice, pushing Princeton into the semifinals in a 10-7 victory.
Wenzlau had a team-high four goals, followed by Hoffenberg, who had two.
“The Brown game, we really played extremely well,” said junior attacker Kurt Buchbinder, who also scored on Friday. “We finally put together a good defensive game to the point where we figured we would be all season.”
Princeton failed to carry that strong performance over to the seminfinals against No. 15 Bucknell the following day. The Bison ended the Tigers’ hopes of a repeat trip to NCAAs in a 7-6 thriller.
The first quarter’s 1-1 score set the tone for a tight game. Though Princeton ended the first half down 3-2, the Tigers entered the third quarter with a scoring drive to take a 5-3 lead with two minutes left in the period. But the Bison scored two goals in quick succession to enter the fourth quarter tied.
The Tigers found themselves in jeopardy when a costly ejection helped put Bucknell ahead at 6-5. Nevertheless, the hosts pulled even with the Bison for a final time on a goal by freshman utility Jamie Kuprenas, only for Bucknell to respond with its own less than a minute later. Princeton failed to produce another equalizer to force overtime and Bucknell advanced to the finals.
“The game just went by so fast,” said senior attacker Tommy Donahue, who led the Tigers’ offensive effort with two goals. “We were struggling to get back. We had a two-goal lead at one point and we gave that up. Then that was it, and it just got away from us.”
Sophomore attacker Sam Butler tallied a team-high three steals, followed by Hoffenberg’s two. Gow saved seven Bucknell balls from finding the back of the net.
The loss came as a product of Princeton’s inability to capitalize on the kind of defensive strategies they employed in the Brown game the day earlier.
“We strayed from the kind of things that we did during the Brown game,” Buchbinder said. “In particular, we knew that the ejection differential would be kind of big, because they run a drop ... But we kind of played into their hands in terms of playing a little too heavy on defense, getting kicked out a lot.”
Princeton moved on to the third-place game against No. 17 Mercyhurst, easily pulling away for a 13-9 victory. With the exception of a 2-0 scoring run by Mercyhurst early in the first quarter, Princeton did not trail for the rest of the game.
Buchbinder tallied three goals, and Donahue, Wenzlau and senior center defender Billy Tifft all followed with two. Gow finished his first year of play with 11 saves in the net and sophomore Brendan Byrne recorded two saves of his own.
The 2012 season was filled with mixed results. Individually, the Collegiate Water Polo Association named two Tigers to their All-Tournament team for Southerns, with Hoffenberg earning a spot on the first team and Wenzlau on the second. The duo also made the list at Easterns, with Wenzlau being named to the first team and Hoffenberg to second instead.
But this year’s third-place finish comes on the heels of one of the best seasons in the program’s history, bringing disappointment for the Tigers, who finished with an overall record of 17-12. Princeton also saw its ranking in CWPA polls fall from No. 12 in the pre-season to No. 20 by the end of the year.
“There’s two sides [to] the story,” Buchbinder explained. “From our perspective, we feel like we could have played better than we did. We never really played to our potential — we lost a lot of one-goal games. But our coach reminds us that, ‘You are what your record is.’ And on paper, we didn’t have a spectacular year ... It is what it is. We like to be ranked high, but we just want to play the best we can. It’s disappointing because we didn’t always play as well as we could have, but at the same time there were glimpses and moments where we did.”
For the seniors, the end of this year’s season is especially bittersweet.
“Obviously, it’s pretty disappointing that we’re not going to be going to NCAAs,” Donahue said. “But at the same time, we did go last year. You have classes that go through four years and they never win, and the win from last year is still pretty fresh in your mind. Obviously it’s still disappointing to lose, but it is what it is.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/11/20/31884/