Despite playing well and hard, the ninth-ranked Tigers fell to a determined thirteenth-ranked Bucknell squad in a heartbreaking 8-7 slugfest at Harvard’s Blodgett pool.
Earlier in the day, the Tigers played a lighter match against the water polo team of the New York Athletic Club. A matchup that had no impact on Princeton’s official win record or conference standing, the game featured previous stars of the Princeton water polo team, including recent graduate Thomas Nelson ‘15. Princeton would ultimately fall, 16-8, to the NYAC.
The Tigers’ next match was far more noteworthy and proved to be far more bitterly-fought. Ranked ninth in the nation and coming off impressive home wins against George Washington and Navy, Princeton faced off against a Bucknell team that had gone 14-3 and nabbed a thirteenth-place national ranking. While they hadn’t played Princeton this year, the Bison had taken impressive victories over George Washington and Navy.
A dogged defensive battle in the first half gave the Bison a 5-3 advantage headed into the third quarter. Late starts, however, have never fazed Princeton before; as freshman Sean Duncan noted, “As a team I think we are very good at always fighting until the end.” The Tigers counterattacked, however, with junior Jordan Colina and freshman Evan Elig tying the score at six. Another goal from sophomore driver Matt Payne, who led the team with four tallies, gave the Tigers the lead with six minutes to go. Ultimately, however, Bucknell equalized the score at seven, and then took the game-winning goal with only a heartbreaking 30 seconds on the clock, giving them an 8-7 lead.
While no doubt a tough loss for the Tigers, Princeton has been overwhelmingly successful in its NWPC conference games and still has an ample opportunity to end the season strongly. Duncan noted that, while the team is extremely skilled offensively and boasts one of the nation’s finest goalkeepers, it needs to continue working on developing patience, concentration, and opportunities to capitalize in the game’s more stalemate moments: “We are very good as a mobile, fast-paced team, but struggle when we get stagnant and play a very slowed-down game. Our momentary lack of focus for one to three minute spans is what kills us and makes us lose close games.” Duncan also noted the challenge of playing with a relatively small, young squad, making it especially impressive that every member of the team has been able to contribute uniquely to its success: “We are a small team to begin with and when we have a couple of guys out with injuries, our bench is only six field players deep. This requires everyone to make contributions in the pool.”
Ultimately, however, there is reason for optimism from the Tigers. While perhaps failing to win some close games, Princeton has proven it is deadly offensive and is one of the most spirited teams in the nation: no loss or deficit seems to faze the Tigers. Ultimately, the Tigers still have a stellar chance of another conference championship and a return to NCAA postseason play. The Tigers take on Iona in their home pool on Saturday.