Thirty wins. A first-ever appearance in the national semifinals. The first non-West Coast school to get to the Final Four since 2016. Two players were named to the NCAA All-Tournament First Team. The No. 8 women’s water polo team (30–4 overall, 9–1 Collegiate Water Polo Association) had nothing short of a historic season.
When the bracket was released for the NCAA tournament, the Tigers were matched up with No. 3 University of California (19–10 overall, 3–3 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) in the quarterfinals. Cal was coming into the match off a season where they saw a record eight wins versus top-10 sides. Meanwhile, the Tigers had just one and were coming into the affair as major underdogs. Who doesn't love a Friday night upset though?
After Cal took an early lead, it was sophomore attacker Rachael Carver who was left unmarked on the far post to tie the contest at one. After both defenses got crucial stops, it was Carver once again with a skip shot from the top of the key to give the Tigers a 2–1 lead.
When the second quarter got underway, it was sophomore utility Kate Mallery who extended the Tiger lead to two. The star for the Tigers was first-year goalie Lindsey Lucas.
Lucas, who recently became just the third Tiger goalie to record 300 saves in a season, had 15 key saves against the Golden Bears. With 6:56 left in the second period, she preserved the two-goal lead for the Tigers with a crucial penalty save.
“Going into the game, the team was very fired up,” Lucas wrote to The Daily Princetonian. “We recognized the opportunity that we had in front of us and we were confident that we had the ability to win the game.”
She added, “I believe it was our positive and passionate energy throughout the game that fueled us until the end.”
After the Golden Bears cut the deficit to one, junior utility Kaila Carroll got on the board for the Tigers to put the lead back at two. Cal would score once again, but it was none other than sophomore star center Jovana Sekulic who scored on a six on five to make it 5–3 Princeton.
The highlight of the first half came when Lucas made a crucial save at point-blank range to deny the Cal center from scoring. The Tigers would then turn defense into offense, with Mallery extending the lead to three for the underdogs.
When the second half got underway, the Golden Bears would look to cut the deficit in the third period. The consensus top-five team in the country would not be going down without a fight. However, the Tigers knew they had to keep pushing and could not give the favorites any room to breathe.
Both sides exchanged goals with Carroll scoring her second of the evening and Carver completing her hat trick to keep the Princeton advantage at three, 8–5.
However, Cal would go on a mini-run to end the period, scoring two goals to end the period. Lucas was once again instrumental, saving her second five meter of the evening and coming up with another big save when the Golden Bears were on the power play.
The beginning of the fourth quarter was all utility Kayla Yelensky. The sophomore from Greenwich, Conn. came up big for the Tigers, scoring back-to-back goals to give her squad a two-goal lead with less than five minutes remaining.
With 2:15 left in the game, Yelensky played the ball into Sekulic. Sekulic, who was able to draw attention from multiple Cal players, would kick it out to Mallery, who would secure her hat trick and put Princeton even closer to making history.
Lucas would record her final two saves of the contest to cap off an 11–9 Princeton win. The win was the Tiger’s first over the Cal Golden Bears. The win also marked the 30th win of the season, the second-highest win total in program history.
“Realizing that we had made the Final Four for the first time in program history was definitely emotional,” Lucas said. “We have always known our team was special, but this win really proved how powerful a family culture inside the team is.”
Next up for the Tigers was the No. 2 ranked University of Southern California (28–3 overall, 6–0 MPSF). The Trojans are six-time national champions and one of the most historic water polo programs in both men’s and women’s water polo.
Unfortunately, the Trojans were to end another historic Tigers season, after knocking out the men’s program. The Trojans would start Saturday evening’s affair with three quick goals early on to force a timeout by head coach Derek Ellingson.
Off the timeout, a goal by Carroll would make it 3-1, but the Trojans would not stop attacking. Three more goals in the period along with a Yelensky five-meter goal would make it 6–2.
Junior utility Meera Burghardt and Sekulic would each find the back of the net once in the second period, but a dominant Trojan offense would score four more to take a comfortable 10–4 lead into the break.
At the break, it was clear that Princeton was struggling to handle the Trojan press defense. The dominant defense would lead to effective scoring opportunities on the other end of the pool.
In the third period, the Tigers would come out of the break trying to mount a comeback against the Trojans. However, every attempt was matched by the dominant Trojan force. USC would go on to outscore Princeton 6–2 in the third period, with the two Tiger goals coming from first-year attacker Ava Houlahan and Carroll.
Yelensky would score the final two goals of the season for Princeton as the sophomore reached the 60-goal mark on the year and completed her hat trick. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their historic season came to an end in an 18–8 loss to the Trojans.
For the Trojans, this marked their fifth consecutive appearance in the NCAA title match. Australian Olympian and redshirt junior Tilly Kearns led the way for USC as she tied her season high with five goals. Redshirt senior Bayley Weber also scored a hat trick en route to her 70th goal of the season.
Princeton had just 22 shots and accumulated 20 turnovers, which would not be a winning recipe on any given night. Despite the loss, it was a historic season for this Tigers squad.
On Monday morning, the NCAA would announce its All-Tournament selections. Sekulic and Lucas would both be named to the first team, becoming the first two players in program history to do so.
“Making the first team is an attribute to our defense as a whole,” Lucas wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “Our defenders are phenomenal and make my job easier.”
With key players returning next season, the future is bright. Both the men’s and women’s programs put the East Coast on the water polo map throughout this school year. With head coaches Dustin Litvak and Derek Ellingson continuing to bring in top recruits and play high-level water polo, fans should be excited to see both teams in action once again.
Hayk Yengibaryan is an associate editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
Please send corrections to corrections[at]princeton.edu.