Having shown itself to be the beast of the east, the time has come for the women’s water polo team to take its talents out west and fight for the ultimate prize in collegiate water polo.
After a 7-6 nailbiter of a closeout against Indiana University and a 12-2 drubbing of Wagner College, Princeton (30-3 overall, 9-1 Collegiate Water Polo Association) finds itself as one of eight teams still hunting for the NCAA championship. Its path to glory, however, is not without major obstacles. Playing in Stanford, Calif., it opens this part of the tournament with a game against the Stanford Cardinal (22-2, 6-0 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation), reigning NCAA champions and winners of three out of the last four NCAA Titles.
The task of beating the Cardinal looks all the more tough given its staunch home record. The Cardinal is 11-0 there this season, and has not dropped a game in its home pool since 2009. Adding to the impressiveness of Stanford’s ability to defend its turf is that it plays in arguably the toughest water polo division in the nation. This is evidenced in the fact that the MPSF has sent four teams this year to the NCAA tournament.
Though Stanford and its unbeaten record may be daunting, junior goalie (and member of the U.S. National Team) Ashleigh Johnson maintains that the team focuses not on the past successes, but solely on the coming game.
“We’re not focusing on the accomplishments of the past,” Johnson said. “We’re taking this game as our next game, and we’re going to play our game.”
Should Princeton pull off the upset, it would most likely remain the underdog throughout the tournament. The winner of their game will face the winner of the University of Southern California and the University of Hawaiion Saturdayat8:15 p.m. Given that Stanford, USC and Hawaii rank second, fourthand fifthin the NCAA respectively, the No. 9 ranked Tigers will be facing heavyweights throughout all their games in the tournament.
Senior utility Ashley Hatcher also pointed out that there’s a certain freedom allotted to the Tigers as the underdogs in the game.
“It’s just exciting to play them because we have nothing to lose ... They’re already looking forward to their semifinal game against USC on Saturday, and not even considering [us] … That really works to our favor.”
Given the way this Princeton team has handled hostile crowds in the past, Tiger faithfuls certainly have reason to be hopeful come this weekend. Wagner fans invaded DeNunzio Pool in their game against the Tigers on April and were subsequently quelled by a roaring Tiger offense.
Indeed, the Tigers have fed off this kind of electricity from the crowd, either on their behalf or otherwise.
“It’s going to be a little nerve-racking but also very exciting,” sophomore center defender Morgan Hallock said. “It’s going to be loud, and that’s going to be really fun for us.”
After drawing eight ejections in both the Indiana and Wagner games (and earning crucial power play goals in each), it’s clear that aggressiveness is a part of the winning formula for the Tigers.One can imagine this tendency for aggressiveness could increase when playing under the bright lights and in front of a boisterous, antagonistic crowd.
Nevertheless, though they may thrive off this energy, the Tigers have to avoid being overeager and playing out of the flow of their offense.
“We [will] just try to take it play by play and slow the game down,” senior utility Jessie Holechek said. “That will be our key to success against Stanford: slowing the game down and making them play at our tempo.”
Hallock echoed a similar sentiment, saying that the balance between intensity and moderation will be key to the Tigers’ maintaining their success.
“Being aggressive on offense but also being patient on offense will be our biggest strong suit,” Hallock said.
Admittedly, this is a Princeton team that likes to score. Averaging 11.5 goals on the season and coming off a 15-goal outing against Wagner, the offense is probably raring to go. Hatcher points out that the need to be patient cannot devolve into a refusal to maintain aggression.
“While we do want to slow the game down, we can’t come out and be timid,” Hatcher said. “We can’t do that with the kind of teams we’re about to go play. [Continuing] the aggression is really important.”
Whether going full throttle at Stanford’s defense or dragging at possessions, this Princeton team seems to have a clear goal for victory in mind: play their game. Only by playing the game on their own terms will they give themselves the best possible chance to advance to the next roundon Saturdaynight.
Johnson said that this game, like any other game, depends on the Tigers not being reactionary, but forging their own path in the game.
“We’re not preparing any differently. We’re just going to go out and play our best game,” Johnson said. “It’s an exciting opportunity.”