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Historic season for men’s water polo ends in NCAA quarterfinal against USC, 11–8

The Tigers set a program record with 27 wins

<h5>Senior captain and attacker Keller Maloney takes a five-meter penalty shot in the loss.</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of Nicole Maloney.</h6>
Senior captain and attacker Keller Maloney takes a five-meter penalty shot in the loss.
Courtesy of Nicole Maloney.

BERKELEY, Calif. — Ahead of last Thursday’s NCAA quarterfinal game against No. 1 Southern California (20–7 overall, 1–2 MPSF), the No. 8 Princeton men’s water polo team (27–6, 10–0 NWPC) knew they had a huge task ahead of them. Despite holding a 5–4 lead midway through the second period and proving they could compete with the USC Trojans, the Tigers eventually fell 11–8.

“[USC] is a great team. We were always gonna have to play pretty close to our best game to be in there at the end. We made a few mental errors and gave up some near side goals. We weren’t helping out [senior goalkeeper] Tony [Knez] as much,” Head Coach Dustin Litvak told The Daily Princetonian. 

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The last time the two squads had met was in 2019 when the Trojans went 15–6 in the annual Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) invitational tournament. This time around, the Tigers were able to hold their own in the first half against the 10-time national champions, although USC pulled away in the second half for a fairly comfortable win to book their 18th-straight semifinal appearance. 

The game started with sophomore utility Roko Pozaric winning the opening sprint. The Tigers scored late in the clock during their opening position when senior utility Joan Coloma assisted first-year utility Luke Johnston to give the Tigers a 1–0 lead.

The first period would be a back and forth contest between the two teams. After the Trojans equalized, sophomore defender Vladan Mitrovic scored to make it 2–1 Princeton. USC would not back down, equalizing once more. Mitrovic would once again score and give the Tigers a crucial 3–2 lead heading into the second period. 

In the second period, USC got the scoring under way quickly to tie the match at three goals a piece. However, first-year utility Logan McCarroll drew a crucial five meter penalty for the Tigers, handing it off to senior captain and attacker Keller Maloney, who drilled it in the back of the net to make it 4–3 in Princeton’s favor. 

“In the first half, we showed we can compete with any team in the country. In the second half, we got a little bit relaxed on our press,” Maloney told the ‘Prince.’ “That team is so good on their legs and such good shooters, and we ate some goals by not being tight in our press. Some mental errors here and there cost us the game.”

The following possession, late in the shot clock, saw Massimo Di Martire rip a bar-in shot for the Trojans from eight meters out. The MPSF newcomer of the year is a graduate student from Italy with national team experience and is undoubtedly one of the top players in the country. 

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On the following Tigers possession, the Trojans defense forced a shot clock violation and then took their first lead of the game down at the other end. The Tigers would not back down, though, with Coloma soon scoring to tie the game at five. 

Right before the break, it was driver Ashworth Molthen who scored for the Trojans on a counter attack to give them a one-goal advantage at halftime. 

The third period was all about driver Marcus Longton and USC. The left-handed player from Orinda, Calif. scored three goals in the third period to open up an insurmountable lead for the Trojans. The lone third period goal for the Tigers came from Keller Maloney. 

“With our 6-on-5, we just seemed really hesitant with the ball, I think we can put the ball away on that goalie, and for whatever reason, we weren’t stepping into open shooting lanes and being confident with the ball,” Litvak told the ‘Prince.’

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Kyle McKenney, the goalie for the Trojans, came up huge in the second half. The graduate student had 11 saves on the evening, including a crucial block on a counter attack by Pozaric. USC would find themselves with a 9–6 lead at the end of the third period. 

In the fourth period, the Trojans would continue where they left off. Di Martire would get his third assist of the night and Molthen would score his second of the game to put USC up 11–6 with 2:55 remaining, putting the game out of reach for the Tigers.

The Tigers would score two late consolation goals from Keller Maloney and Pozaric, but USC would hang on for an 11–8 victory at Spieker Aquatics Complex. 

The loss marked the end of a historic season by Litvak and his team. This group set a program record with 27 wins, tied a program record with 13 straight wins, had an undefeated conference season, and had a historic win over No. 3 ranked Stanford. 

The team will now graduate an incredible senior class: Antonio Knez, Keller Maloney, Ryan Neapole, Nick Hovsmith, Yurian Quinones, Harry Foster, Joan Coloma, and Harry Moross. Knez finishes his career with 587 saves, third-most in program history. 

“We are losing some very critically important seniors, super special guys ... but we have a lot of returning pieces and some guys coming in that will make a difference right away. I’m excited,” Litvak said. “The worst part of today is that I don’t get to work with these guys anymore, which has been the best part of the last three months. The wins are awesome, but the guys make it special.”

Keller Maloney finishes his career with 198 goals and 164 assists. The 164 assists will go down as second all-time for the Tigers. He gave an emotional response postgame when asked about how he felt after playing his last ever game for the program.

“All love for everyone. To Dusty, Savannah, Derek, and Hugh. To the old coach Luis Nicolao to recruit me. To my high school coach Brian Flacks,” he said. “To every one of my teammates who I have had the honor of playing with, most of all my brother.”

“What I’m going to miss most about the program is the opportunity to reach my limit — mentally, physically, and emotionally — every day and to grow as a result,” he added. “For the rest of my life, I’m going to be lucky to have even a single day which allows me to push every limit.”

Neapole and Coloma leaving will certainly leave big shoes for the returning Tigers to fill next season, especially on the defensive end, where the two have been a vital part of this team’s defensive dominance. Senior attacker Yurian Quinones will consider the possibility of returning for a fifth year and using his extra year of eligibility to run it back one more time with the Tigers. 

While the team did not achieve its goal of winning a national championship, they gave the Princeton fans something to cheer for every week and put their name on the national map.

“This group changed the culture of not only Princeton water polo, but east coast water polo,” Litvak said. “This is not a one-off. This is just a launching point, and we will continue to compete at the highest levels and work to win a national championship. Next year’s group will take this and run with it.” 

With Litvak under contract until the end of the 2028 season, this is only the beginning of what’s to come for the Tigers. If one thing’s for sure, this team will be back and competing for years to come. Keller Maloney put it best:

“It’s really exciting for me to see the belief in our team, that we can beat any team in the country and compete for a national championship. That belief did not exist when I got to Princeton, but it exists now. I couldn’t be more excited for the future of this program.” 

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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