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The Princeton women’s water polo team (23–8) suffered a season-ending heartbreaker this past weekend at the Collegiate Water Polo Association Championships at Bucknell University. Defeating the No. 23 Harvard Crimson and the No. 14 Indiana Hoosiers in the first two rounds, the Tigers made it to the championship game, only to fall to their long-time rivals, the No. 11 Michigan Wolverines, 11–8.

Earlier this month, the Tigers beat the Wolverines in conference play in double overtime, 8–7, marking their first win against their rivals in three years, breaking their 20-game win streak. This was particularly satisfying after Princeton’s 5–4 loss in the CWPA championships last year. Princeton entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed, with a perfect conference record at 8–0.

Friday evening, Princeton took on Harvard, handily crushing it 12–4, despite a slow start, with the Crimson going up 2–0 in the first quarter. The team regained momentum for the rest of three quarters, with junior utility Lindsey Kelleher and senior 2-meter Chelsea Johnson each finishing with a hat trick. Freshman goalie Marissa Webb had 11 saves in the game.

The semifinal game against Indiana on Saturday made for a stressful afternoon as the two teams went into overtime. Again, the Tigers made for a slow start, with the Hoosiers going up 20 in the first quarter. But, just like the Harvard game, Princeton came back out strong in the second quarter to go 5–4 at half. Tied 6–6 by the buzzer, the teams entered overtime. With both opponents retying the score several times within the overtime quarters, Kelleher and junior attacker Eliza Britt put the game away with two more goals to win 10–8. Senior utility Haley Wan led the team in points with four goals, two assists, two steals, and three blocks. Johnson finished with an impressive five drawn ejections, and Webb with another 11 saves.

In the championship game, the Tigers’ typical slow start proved too advantageous for the Wolverines. They went up 6–2 in the first quarter, crushing Princeton’s defense with continuous drives from the perimeter. At halftime, Michigan was still up with a wide margin at 8–3. Still fighting, the Orange and Black clawed their way to get within two tallies, 9–7, to enter the fourth quarter. However, unlike the first two games, the Tigers could not finish, and the Wolverines took home the CWPA title and automatic NCAA bid with an 11–8 win.

Wan, who had four goals in the loss, commented on the team’s fighting ability.

“I am the most proud of how the team came together to rally behind each other and fight together. Everyone on the team bought in to our goals and the chemistry among the girls was what we owe our successes to. Although we did not start games off well, we fought together each quarter to battle back from being down,” she said.

Sophomore attacker Amy Castellano added her support for the grit of the team.

“Although the outcome of the CWPA championships was not in our favor, I thought the tournament demonstrated our team’s persistence and determination. In all three games, our opponents scored first, yet we did not let the early goal deficit impact our ability to perform. I think in the end, the little mistakes that we made early on in the championship game caught up to us, but I am still in awe of my team’s ability to never give up. This tournament truly highlighted our team’s poise and desire to fight back in times of adversity,” she said.

Wan and Johnson were awarded CWPA Championship All-Tournament first-team selections. Webb was named Rookie of the Tournament, and head coach Rebecca Dorst was selected as Coach of the Tournament. Dorst was also named of Coach of the Year in CWPA All-Conference Selections for the regular season.

Though it ended in a tearjerker, the end of the season marked an incredibly impressive underdog story from the team’s beginnings in February. Two weeks before season began, former head coach Luis Nicolao resigned to become the Naval Academy head coach, with former assistant Dorst stepping up to be interim head. The first tournament of the season, in Arizona, saw the team go 0–4. In March, the team lost in a shocking defeat to No. 13 Hartwick Hawks, 12–13, and a suffered a crushing defeat to Michigan, 4–13. By the end of the season, the Tigers went on to beat No. 15 Loyola Marymount University, to whom they had lost in the Arizona tournament, and beat both Hartwick and Michigan in the teams’ second meetings of the season. The team started out ranked No. 7 in CWPA polls, finishing as No. 1, and improved from No. 22 in NCAA polls to No. 10.

Castellano remarked on the success of the season.

“Overall, I think this season was revolutionary. As Coach Dorst said at the end of the final game, the season that our team had this year has definitely forever changed the culture of the program. By upsetting Michigan, the number one ranked team in our league at the time, we were able to prove to everyone that we were a force to be reckoned with and that Princeton water polo was much more than just a water polo team on the East Coast,” she said.

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