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‘A real privilege’: brothers Keller Maloney ’23 and Pierce Maloney ’24 reflect on water polo careers

<h5>The brothers began playing water polo at an early age.</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of the Maloney family.</h6>
The brothers began playing water polo at an early age.
Courtesy of the Maloney family.

From growing up together in Los Angeles to playing together for the Tigers, the Maloney brothers have a lifetime’s experience of supporting each other in and outside of the pool.

Keller Maloney ’23 is a captain of the Princeton men’s water polo team. His younger brother Pierce Maloney ’24, who has been by his side since childhood, is another key contributor to the success of the Princeton program. 

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It seems as though love for water polo runs in their family. The brothers’ history with water polo traces back to their father, who played at Harvard University and was an instrumental figure in the founding of the program in Cambridge. When the brothers were 12 and 11 years old, their mother began to encourage them to play water polo. 

“The pool was freezing, we were wearing a tight, uncomfortable bathing suit. We hated it at first,” Keller told The Daily Princetonian. 

While there wasn’t a ‘love at first sight’ moment for the brothers when they initially stepped into the pool, they soon developed a passion for the sport. 

Their first interactions with the sport began at the L.A. Premier Water Polo Club, headed at the time by current Stanford University head coach Brian Flacks. Flacks was also the high school coach for Harvard Westlake, where both brothers attended school. As coach of the school’s team, Flacks won four California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Championships.

“Flacks was the most critical figure in our development as players. Keller and I have had the privilege of being coached by both Brian Flacks and Dustin Litvak, two of the best coaches in the United States for water polo,” Pierce told the ‘Prince.’

Pierce’s best memory before coming to Princeton was winning the Division I CIF Southern Section Championships during his senior year of high school. He called it “one of the most rewarding moments before coming to Princeton.” Coincidentally, it was a moment he had the opportunity to enjoy with current Princeton teammates senior Ryan Neapole and junior George Caras, both of whom are also Westlake alumni.

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Of course, Pierce also joined a third Westlake teammate at Princeton — his brother, Keller. For Pierce, playing with Keller goes beyond the bond they have as brothers. 

“[Playing with Keller] is a real privilege,” Pierce said. “He is a wonderful leader and consistent on every team I have been a part of. He’s been the most dedicated and competitive member.” 

Likewise, Keller had nothing but praise for his younger brother. 

“He makes the biggest plays consistently. I’ve learned a lot from him, and he’s driven me to be a better player,” Keller said.  

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The brothers competed together at Harvard Westlake in high school.
Courtesy of the Maloney family.

While both brothers are now at Princeton, they were recruited by two different coaches — Keller by the former Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao and Pierce by current coach Litvak.

Keller described how deeply upset he was when he found out that Nicolao had left Princeton: “I felt like I committed to something that was no longer present. The rug was pulled underneath me.”

Despite his initial reaction, Keller was ecstatic when Litvak was announced as the new head coach. The Maloneys’ cousin had been coached by Litvak in California and spoke highly of the newly announced coach.

Keller had an amazing season in the pool as a first-year in 2018, posting 35 goals and 42 assists. He helped the program qualify for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament for the first time since 2015. Unfortunately for Keller and the Tigers, they would go on to lose to George Washington University in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. 

A year later, Pierce became one of Litvak’s two recruits at Princeton. 

“It was one of the more satisfying days of my life,” Pierce told the ‘Prince,’ recalling the moment he committed to the Princeton admissions process. 

After a year apart, the two brothers would finally play together once again in 2019. That fall, the Maloney brothers combined for 69 goals and 54 assists. While the team did not qualify for the NCAA tournament, the brothers’ impact early in their collegiate careers heralded the success to come. Keller was named to the Northeast Water Polo Conference All Tournament Second-Team, with Pierce earning an Honorable Mention. 

With the 2020 season canceled due to the pandemic, the two athletes gained an extra year of eligibility in the NCAA. Taking advantage of this, Keller and Pierce reclassified to the classes of 2023 and 2024, respectively.

After a nearly two-year hiatus, the 2021 season was highly anticipated by both brothers, as well as the rest of the team. That season, the Tigers set a program record with 26 wins and subsequently qualified for the NCAA tournament. 

The Maloney brothers combined for 81 goals and 57 assists. Keller was named NWPC player of the week three times, First Team All-NWPC, and NWPC All Tournament First Team.

For Keller, the highlight of the season was winning the conference championships at home a year ago.

“The game itself was great. We came back to win after being down three goals. The energy from the crowd the entire game was spectacular,” Keller said. “When the final whistle blew, 30 to 40 of the students jumped in to celebrate with us. It was magical.”

In the first round of the NCAA tournament, Pierce would go on to score a hat trick and provide two assists against Fordham, advancing them to a contest with No. 2 UCLA. Unfortunately for Princeton, the game resulted in a loss, but it did not take away from what was a historic season. 

This year, the two have continued to help Princeton make history, providing 69 goals and 66 assists so far. Perhaps the most special moment this season was beating No. 3 Stanford (20–4, 0–3 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation), coached by none other than Flacks, their childhood coach. The win also marked the first time Princeton had beat a Big 4 school (California, Stanford, California-Los Angeles, or Southern California) in program history.

“Keller and I have a deep appreciation of what it takes to beat Flacks in a game. It was a really great feeling,” Pierce told the ‘Prince.’ “However, though it is making history, we have bigger goals for the season.”

“The opportunity to see Flacks on a pool deck is one I’ll cherish forever. He has been my closest mentor and one of my best friends. He has been instrumental in my growth as a player and person,” Keller added. “It was weird hearing Brian’s voice during the game. It took me a second to recognize that he was not not my coach. The moment is one I’ll remember forever.” 

The Tigers are in the midst of another historic season and will have a chance to break the program record for wins, set last season. The win against Stanford is just a step in the right direction. 

With the season coming to an end, the Maloney brothers now only have a few more games of water polo together in their lifetime. They are now in the home run stretch of their season, with every game potentially being the end of their season, and more importantly, the end of the 11-year journey for the two. 

“Water polo has been the thing that has given me the most in life and what I have given most to. Imagining not playing it anymore is scary to me, and it is a part of [my] identity,” Keller said. “There’s a part of me that wants to hold on and cherish every second I have playing this sport and playing with Pierce.” 

Hayk Yengibaryan is a contributor to the Sports section at the ‘Prince.' Please direct any corrections requests to corrections at dailyprincetonian.com.

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