Men’s water polo (16–10, 6–4 conference) will begin the Northeast Water Polo Conference tournament this Friday at 2 p.m. when they face Iona College (6–25, 0–10). If they win, they will play the No. 2 seeded Saint Francis College on Saturday afternoon.
The Tigers will come into the match with a two-game win streak, including a victory against Iona on Nov. 4. Iona, on the other hand, enters the match on a six-game losing streak, and has gone 0–10 in conference play this season.
Although the Tigers ended the season with a 16–10 record, good for third in the NWPC, their success has not come without challenges. On the first day of the season, Princeton lost junior center Sean Duncan to injury, one of the key players in the Tigers’ run to the NWPC championship game last year.
“Right off the bat we were having to deal with adversity, and I think we’ve definitely gone through a lot this year, but it’s just part of any process,” said head coach Dustin Litvak. “I think if you look all around college water polo, there’s a lot of parity all around. It’s just normal. It’s something we talk about, and every day has new challenges.”
Despite the injury to Duncan, as well as the loss of key graduating seniors, the Tigers have still found success this season, thanks in large part to contributions from the Class of 2022. Freshmen Keller Maloney, Wyatt Benson, and Mitchell Cooper have combined for 81 goals this season. Maloney also leads the team with 25 steals, while Benson paces the team with 67 drawn ejections.
“I think that it’s a tremendous freshman class, without a doubt,” said Litvak. “They’ve been huge for us.”
The Tigers have also benefited from strong senior performances. Senior utility Ryan Wilson leads the team in assists with 41, while senior attacker Matt Payne has scored the most goals at 67. Payne will enter the Iona match on a hot streak, recording 7 goals and 13 assists in the final three games and winning NWPC Offensive Player of the Week in the process.
“They really want to leave a strong legacy behind,” said Litvak on the senior class. “I can’t say enough about how hard they train every day, the intensity they bring to the pool. They’re real serious about their craft, and you can tell that water polo is very important to them.”
Payne will look to keep this form in Friday’s game, which will be the Tigers’ first elimination match of the season. Should they lose, they will be eliminated from the NWPC tournament, and in all likelihood will lose their shot at an NCAA bid. Despite the high stakes of the game, the Tigers will not be changing their approach.
“For us, the challenge is obviously to bring the right energy every day to the training and to the games. But we’re not trying to be anybody different at the end of the year than we’ve been all year,” said Litvak. “We have really been striving for consistency. We have kind of said since the beginning, if we do our job every day, we’ll be in a good place come this tournament.”