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‘These experiences are extremely valuable’: Men’s water polo returns from California trip with lessons learned

A man in a white cap, swimming with his head visible just above water, yells in excitement.
The Tigers will return to action this weekend at Denunzio Pool when they host Harvard, Brown, and MIT as they look to kick off conference play in strong fashion. 
Courtesy of @pwaterpolo/Instagram.

Over the weekend, No. 4 men’s water polo (11–2 overall, 0–0 Northeast Water Polo Conference) traveled to Southern California and back, facing some of the nation’s best in the intervening 72 hours. Throughout four major games, Princeton played two other teams tied with them in the Collegiate Water Polo poll, going against No. 14 Cal Baptist Lancers (6–8 overall, 0–0 West Coast), No. 4 Stanford (8–4 overall, 0–0 Mountain Pacific), No. 11 Long Beach State (10–4 overall, 0–1 Big West), and No. 4 ranked Pepperdine Waves (12–2 overall, 0–0 West Coast). They split the contests, going 2–2.

Pozaric shines during win vs. Cal Baptist


On Friday evening, the squad kicked off the weekend at Spieker Aquatics Center in Los Angeles. They would be facing the No. 14 Cal Baptist Lancers for the second time this season, having previously beaten them 15–7 at the Princeton Invitational. 

The first quarter was a slight struggle for the Tigers, who were up just 4–3 after eight minutes. However, a strong second quarter saw Princeton take a 9–5 advantage into the halftime break. 

The squad would continue strong out of the break, shining on the defensive end. Head coach Dustin Litvak’s squad gave up just three goals in the second half, scoring seven themselves to close out a comfortable 16–8 win.

The star for the Tigers was junior utility Roko Pozaric. The Croatian scored six goals in the contest, tying the career-high that he set during his first season at Princeton. First-year goalie Kristóf Kovács had 10 saves to lead the defensive effort. 

The marquee matchup vs. Stanford

Saturday morning saw the matchup that the water polo world had been waiting for: Princeton versus No. 4 Stanford. 335 days before Saturday, the Tigers marched into Northern California and had a historic upset over the Cardinal. On Saturday morning, it was the Cardinal’s chance to avenge that loss from the year prior. 


Stanford would score the first goal of the game after a Pozaric exclusion led to a man-up situation for the Cardinal. Shortly after, the Cardinal got a stop on their end, and would put the ball into set for a shot that would get right past sophomore goalie West Temkin, for the 2–0 start. 

Princeton responded, however. After senior attacker Pierce Maloney drew the exclusion for Princeton, it was fellow senior attacker Yurian Quinones who would score to cut the Stanford lead to one. On the other end, Stanford worked for two meters once more, getting another goal from inside to make it 3–1. As the first period ended, though, the Tigers managed to score once again. Sophomore utility JP Ohl fed the ball to junior utility Mason Killion, who put the ball in the back of the net. 

During the first half of the second period, the two sides exchanged goals, with Ohl getting on the scoresheet for the Tigers. Following the goal from Ohl, the Cardinal responded, catching the defense off guard, a perfectly timed pass to driver Grant Watson helped Stanford regain its two-goal advantage, 5–3. 

The star for the Cardinal was goalie Griffin Price, who kept Princeton at bay for most of the game. Following a big stop by Price, Stanford scored off of a man-up advantage, forcing a timeout by Litvak. After the timeout, the Tigers failed to convert due to a misdirected pass, which led to yet another Stanford goal. The game seemed to be slipping away for Princeton, who found themselves in a four-goal hole. 

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Coming out of halftime, Princeton tried to fight back. During a man-up advantage, sophomore utility Logan McCarroll got a great look on goal, but it was Price once again who was there to make the stop. Frustrations continued to build up for the Tigers, who gave everything to find a goal in the third period. However, field blocks  from Price kept the Tigers scoreless for the first five minutes of the period. 

The last three minutes saw goals from McCarroll and sophomore utility Luke Johnston to keep Princeton within striking distance. The Cardinal got one of their own, taking an 8–5 lead into the final period. Things just never got going for Princeton, who were outscored 3–1 in the final period, dropping the match to Stanford, 11–6. 

The Tigers were unsuccessful during their man-up situations, going a disappointing two-for-12. Stanford, on the other hand, converted at a much higher rate: 80 percent, making good use of their six-on-fives.

“Our attack needs a lot of work, both on [six-versus-five] and attacking zones when we are even,” Litvak wrote to The Daily Princetonian. “Right now, all the pieces are not coordinated, and we strayed from both our game plan and what has made us successful to this point too many times this weekend. It is great that we are creating so many opportunities but frustrating that we are wasting so many of them. Our man-down defense also needs a lot of work, specifically our shot-blocking. We are not helping our goalies at all.”

Head Coach Brian Flacks got his revenge, successfully avenging last year’s loss to Litvak and leading his team to the semifinal game. Princeton may play Stanford once more in the NCAA tournament, but that will be determined in late November. 

The Tigers take care of business against No. 11 Long Beach State

The second game on Saturday was another close contest as the Tigers would face No. 11 Long Beach State. The winner of the game would play in the fifth-place match while the loser would have to settle for seventh.

Pozaric, who did not score in the previous game versus the Cardinal, got the scoring underway for the Tigers to give them a 1–0 lead. After Long Beach tied the game, Pozaric scored again to take back the lead for the Tigers. Despite Pozaric’s heroics though, the star of the first quarter was Kovács, who kept Long Beach at bay. 

The second period saw Long Beach take a 4–2 lead after scoring three unanswered goals. Although the Tigers had offensive opportunities, they were unable to get anything past Long Beach State goalie Liam Ward. As the second period came to an end, it was first-year utility Tigran Sennett who scored for Princeton to cut the Beach lead to one. The first-year from South Africa found himself in the lineup more this past weekend, especially during man-up plays for Litvak. 

When asked about Sennett and Ohl, Litvak had nothing but praise for both of his utility players. 

“Both Tiggy [Sennett] and JP  are extremely athletic, natural in the water, and extremely dangerous shooters,” Litvak told the ‘Prince.’ “They both have qualities that are unteachable and are so valuable to our team. The more experience they get, the more comfortable they will become which is only going to make our team that much better.”

The start of the second period saw junior defender Vladan Mitrovic take the lead. Similarly to Pozaric, Mitrovic failed to score in the earlier match against the Cardinal. However, two early goals in the third period tied the game at five goals a piece. First-year utility Finn LeSieur and junior utility Isaac Rotenberg scored the final two goals of the period for Princeton to finish ahead 5–2.

In the fourth quarter, it seemed like the Tigers had put the game away after goals from McCarroll and Killion gave them a 9–6 lead with just over two minutes remaining. However, careless offensive mistakes gave Long Beach another chance. Long Beach’s sophomore utility Bruno Chiappini scored two straight goals to cut the lead to one. However, an organized Princeton defense finally put the game to bed after a steal by Quinones ended any hopes of a Beach comeback. 

“In the Long Beach game, we committed three offensive fouls with a three-goal lead,” Litvak told the ‘Prince.’ “That is unacceptable. These are free opportunities for the other team that they are not earning. Part of growing as a team is also learning how to manage game situations.”

Tensions heighten in loss to No. 4 Pepperdine

The last game of the tournament was the fifth-place match against No. 4 Pepperdine. One of the storylines heading into the match was goalie Antonio Knez ’23 playing his former Princeton teammates. Knez, who is studying business at Pepperdine’s graduate school, was one of the best goalies in program history. The Croatian had 587 saves in his three seasons with the Tigers and was an Honorable Mention All–American in 2022. 

Knez and the Waves came out firing during the first quarter. Defender Nico Tierney and center Matty Walsh opened the scoring for Pepperdine. Quinones responded off a five-meter penalty to bring the Tigers within one. After the first period, the Waves had a 4–2 lead.

In the second period, both Pozaric and LeSiuer scored to tie the game, evoking excitement from the Princeton crowd and bench. The Tigers’ roster features many players from California, so Princeton had quite the fan base on display in Los Angeles over the weekend. 

One of the highlights of the second period came when Princeton drew a penalty foul. Junior star Roko Pozaric stepped up to take the penalty for Princeton, but his former teammate and fellow Croatian was there to stop it. 

Ohl and junior center George Caras would score the final goals of the half to tie the contest at six all, taking both sides to halftime with everything left to play for in the second. The Waves would start the scoring in the third, but Princeton would score three unanswered goals to take a 9–7 lead. Senior attacker and captain Pierce Maloney would lead the way for the Tigers with two goals. 

However, the Tiger defense would lose focus. Scoring four unanswered goals, Pepperdine would take a commanding 11–9 lead with 6:20 to go. Mitrovic and Maloney would give it their all to keep the Tigers in the contest, but Pepperdine would always find a response. 

Frustrations continued to build  for Princeton as the officials were regularly calling exclusions on both sides. Two Tigers were rolled from the game while Mitrovic was shown the red card for questioning a call from the official. The Waves finished the game with three late goals to wrap up a 15–11 win. 

“We made some critical mental and emotional errors in this game that cost us. We also made the game very difficult for ourselves by having so many players in foul trouble or fouling out. Again, we have a lot of work to do as a team and part of that is adjusting to the way the officials are calling the game,” Litvak added. 

The Tigers finished the MPSF invite in sixth place. On Wednesday, Sept. 27, when the weekly Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) rankings are released, it is widely expected that the Tigers’ ranking will drop. 

“These losses and these experiences are so incredibly valuable. We’ve got some great film to review from the weekend to fix mistakes in our attack, on the defensive end, and in transition,” Litvak said. 

“How we attack our weaknesses right now is completely up to us. We can’t hide from them any longer, they are glaring. At the same time, I think we can play with anybody. I sincerely believe that,” Litvak added.

Litvak believes both losses to Stanford and Pepperdine were more competitive than the final scores showed. While Princeton did not rank as high in the MPSF invite as desired, Tiger fans can remain optimistic. It is still early in the season.Litvak mentioned that his team has been together since mid–August, while many of the programs in California  operating without Ivy League restrictions have been practicing since January. 

The team will travel once again to California to play more top-ranked opponents, including a rematch against the Pepperdine Waves. This weekend, the Tigers will kick off conference play at Denunzio Pool. 

“The part of coaching I may love the most is problem-solving. Whether that is trying to negate another team’s strengths or address our deficiencies. There is always a solution, and while it’s never easy, it’s always rewarding to see a team really invest in getting better and face challenges head-on,” Litvak said.

Hayk Yengibaryan is an associate editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’

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