When the final buzzer sounded on Sunday afternoon, the No. 8 Princeton men’s water polo team (26–5 overall, 10–0 NWPC) jumped in the pool with the entire coaching staff, celebrating a 13–8 win against No. 18 St. Francis-Brooklyn (21–10, 6–4).
The win gave the Tigers their second consecutive Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) title and marked the first time in program history that they won the conference championships in back-to-back years.
“It is very special, mostly because this is the first class I ever recruited, aside from [senior attacker] Keller,” Head Coach Dustin Litvak told The Daily Princetonian. “To see it come full circle with that group … my first recruited class, seeing them come all the way to now being seniors, leaders, and captains, I’m extremely proud.”
The match today was a rematch of the 2021 NWPC Championship game in which the Tigers bested the St. Francis-Brooklyn Terriers 9–6 at Denunzio Pool. Today was also the fifth-consecutive NWPC title game that Princeton took part in, and the win made it three titles in four years for Litvak.
With 6:18 left in the first period, senior utility Ryan Neapole opened the scoring for the Tigers with a perfectly executed six on five play by Litvak’s squad.
Shortly afterwards, there was another man-up goal for Princeton. This time, it was none other than sophomore utility Roko Pozaric, who scored his 59th goal on the season on that play.
The period ended with senior attacker Yurian Quinones adding his name to the scoresheet. Up 3–0, this was the second-consecutive first quarter shutout by the Tigers, as they held Brown to zero goals in the first frame the previous afternoon.
The second quarter got off to a sluggish start for both teams, but Neapole got his second of the game with 5:35 left in the second period, putting Princeton up 4–0.
“It feels money, not [going to] lie. This is just the first step. One play-in game, and then on to California to keep going for a national championship,” Neapole told the ‘Prince.’ “We’re stoked to get back to practice. We know this is a big accomplishment for us — we hadn't ever won back-to-back conference championships, but we’re eager to keep going.”
After 11 minutes and 40 seconds, the Terriers found their first goal of the game courtesy of a six-on-five play. However, the next possession, sophomore defender Vladan Mitrovic responded immediately with an amazing goal from the top of the key to keep the advantage at four goals.
Right before halftime, senior utility Joan Coloma added a tally to his name, expanding the lead to 6–1. Senior goalie Antonio Knez led the defensive effort with eight saves in the first half.
St. Francis, however, would not give up. The Terriers got two quick goals to start the second half, forcing Litvak into a timeout. After the timeout, Coloma got his second goal of the game making it 7–3, Tigers.
After St. Francis scored their third goal of the second half, Pozaric assisted junior center George Caras who finished it off easily for Princeton. The third quarter drew to a close with Princeton holding on to an 8–4 lead.
Coloma continued his impressive game, scoring his third goal with a hat trick to start the final period. The following possession, it was Pozaric to Caras again. Princeton was then up 10–4 — their largest lead of the afternoon.
After two quick goals by the Terriers, senior attacker and captain Keller Maloney got on the scoresheet for the Tigers courtesy of a five-meter penalty goal.
In the the next possession, Maloney drew a five meter penalty for the Tigers. He unselfishly handed it off to Quinones, who scored his second of the contest with 2:56 left to play.
The last Princeton goal came from sophomore attacker Gavin Molloy, his third of the weekend. The Terriers would score two late consolation goals, but it was not enough as Princeton cruised to a 13–8 victory. Knez finished the game with 12 key saves.
“It’s a great experience, it’s great to win, it’s a huge accomplishment, but I think this was just one step to NCAA’s,” Knez told the ‘Prince.’ “There’s no team on the west coast that’s [going to] underestimate us. Whoever we play, we’re [going to] come in ready.”
As soon as the buzzer sounded, the Princeton bench erupted with cheers. The bench pushed Litvak into the pool with the rest of the coaching staff making their way into the water to celebrate a second straight NWPC championship.
With the win, the Tigers officially secured a ticket to the NCAA Water Polo championships. Pairings for the bracket are live for fans around the world to view on the official website.
Moreover, the Tigers matched their program record of 26 wins, set by last year’s squad. They will have a chance to break the record in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
“Our goal the entire year is to compete for a national championship. We’ve had successful competitions in California, even being competitive in the games we dropped,” Litvak told the ‘Prince.’ “Our confidence will continue to grow. Our depth keeps getting deeper. So many guys on our team step up at different moments.”
After the game, Neapole was named to the NWPC All-Tournament First Team. Knez and Mitrovic were named to the second team.
When asked if this was the best Princeton team he has coached, Litvak responded by saying, “they’ve definitely had the most time to learn the system I want them of playing and the one they’re capable of playing”
“There’s tremendous amount of talent,” he added. “I think this is the deepest team and the most talented team from my time here.”
Taking home the biggest honor of the day, Coloma was named to the first team and also named the NWPC Tournament MVP.
“For me, it was a tremendous experience and I’m super excited to go to the NCAA Championships,” Coloma told the ‘Prince’ in a post game interview. “I want to emphasize that this was a team win. I’m very excited and very motivated and I think we’re gonna have a lot of fun playing.”
It is clear that this Princeton team is ready to make history and has big aspirations for this season. In just two weeks time, the nation will see this team’s destiny unfold on the national stage at the University of California, Berkeley.
Hayk Yengibaryan is a contributor to the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to corrections at dailyprincetonian.com.