While most Princeton students were enjoying Lawnparties on Prospect street on Sunday afternoon, the No. 10 women’s water polo team (29–3 overall, 9–1 CWPA) were busy winning their first Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) championship win since 2015. After defeating No. 18 Harvard (23–9, 5–5) 12—8, the team, along with their fans, jumped into Denunzio Pool to celebrate their victory.
The Tigers had beaten St. Francis (13–23–1, 2–8) in the semifinal match, and the Harvard Crimson had a huge upset win over the Michigan Wolverines (23–10, 9–1). The Wolverines have dominated the CWPA, winning the last six championships and getting the better of Princeton on multiple occasions.
“It would have been fun to play Michigan in the final, but Harvard deserved to be in the championship game after their amazing performance in the semis,” first-year goalie Lindsey Lucas wrote to the Daily Princetonian.
“Harvard and Princeton is always a fun rivalry game,” she added.
The win also earned the Tigers an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which will be hosted by the University of the Pacific from May 12 to 14.
The last time the Tigers made the tournament was when Ashleigh Johnson ’17 was the goalie. Johnson holds the Tigers’ program record for most saves in a season and career, and she helped the U.S. national team win gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Although Harvard scored the first goal, the Tigers were quick to respond. A pass from across the pool led to an equalizer from sophomore utility Kayla Yelensky. After that, the player from Greenwich, Ct. found the back of the net once again to give the Tigers a 2–1 lead.
The rest of the period was a defensive battle, with Lucas making a key save to keep the Tigers up 2–1.
After Harvard missed during their first possession of the second period, Lucas would outlet a beautiful pass to senior attacker Annie Robinson for Princeton’s third goal. The three goals for the Tigers had all come from players hailing from Connecticut.
A goal from Harvard cut the deficit to one, but a six-on-five advantage would give Princeton its fourth goal. This time around, it was first-year utility Shanna Davidson finding junior utility Meera Burghardt on the far post for a goal.
The next two goals for the Tigers came from the CWPA Tournament’s Most Valuable Player, sophomore star Jovana Sekulic. The first of the two was a shot from set, as Sekulic separated from her Crimson defender and scored with ease. The latter was another shot from center as Sekulic scored despite having four Crimson players around her.
The Tigers took a 6–3 lead into the halftime break, only 16 minutes away from capturing the CWPA championship and earning a bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
Coming out of the break hungry for more, Yelensky completed an impressive hat trick to give the Tigers a 7–3 lead. However, the Crimson would not give up, scoring two goals to cut the lead down to two.
It was once again another six-on-five goal for Princeton, and this time it was junior utility Kaila Carroll finding the back of the net.
One of the highlights of the game came when Lucas received a 30 second exclusion along with a field goal for the Tigers, resulting in a six-on-five for the Crimson with no goalie for Princeton during the possession. A crucial block by first-year Ava Houlahan kept them up 8–5, delivering a huge blow to the Crimson.
Two more goals by Princeton gave them a 10–5 lead heading into the final period. Harvard would score three goals in the final period, but Yelensky’s fourth of the game and Sekulic’s hat trick sealed a 12–8 win for Princeton.
As the final buzzer sounded, cheers were heard around Denunzio Pool. The Tigers’ faithful fans witnessed their team win a championship at their home pool. The players jumped in with head coach Derek Ellignson, who won his first championship as head coach of the program.
The men’s water polo team also jumped in to celebrate, marking just the second time both the men’s and women’s team won the championship in the same academic year, with the first time coming in 2011–12.
Lucas mentioned how many people doubted the squad before the season started.
“People were telling us that this wasn’t our year to win CWPAs, that the competition was too good,” she said. “It is amazing to be part of this team and I’m very proud of how hard we worked to do it. When the buzzer sounded, I was shocked, not because I didn’t think we could win, but because it felt surreal.”
The Tigers would go on to sweep the tournament awards. Sekulic was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player; Lucas was named the Rookie of the Year; and Ellingson was named the Doc Hunkler Coach of the Year.
Sekulic, Yelensky, and Lucas were additionally named to the All-Tournament first team, and senior attacker Laura Larkin was named to the second team.
On Monday night, the pairings for the NCAA tournament were released. Princeton will be the No. 6 seed in the tournament and face No. 3 University of California (19–9, 3–3 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) in the quarterfinals on May 12 at 9 p.m.
The preparation for the tournament begins now for the Tigers amid their historic season. The game against Cal will be a huge test, but the sky’s the limit for Ellingson’s squad.
“I believe this team can do anything as long as we stick together and play our game,” Lucas added.
Hayk Yengibaryan is an assistant editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.