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Men’s water polo goes 5–2 during their second California trip, with wins over four ranked opponents

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Defender Vladan Mitrovic had four crucial goals to lead the way for the Tigers against the Bruins, matching his season high. The junior had 13 goals in the seven games over the trip.
Picture courtesy of @pwaterpolo/X.

This past week, the No. 6 men’s water polo (21–4 overall, 5–0 Northeast Water Polo Conference) team traveled across California, playing seven games over seven days. The seven games included six against opponents ranked in the top 15. The team ended the trip 5–2, returning to the Garden State with the hopes that they would return a third time in early December to compete for a national championship. 

Coming down to the wire: Wins against the Anteaters and Gauchos come in exciting fashion


The first three games of the trip saw the Tigers play in Southern California, the home of six current Tiger players. The first game of the trip was a back and forth showdown against No. 9 University of California – Irvine (13–7, 2–1 Big West) that saw the Tigers pull out a narrow 11–9 victory. 

After the Anteaters scored the first two goals of the game, junior utility Mason Killion got the scoring started for the Tigers. Irvine would control the first quarter, taking a 4–3 lead at the end of the period. Sophomore utility JP Ohl assisted all three Tiger goals in the first period, with the other two goals coming from junior center George Caras and first-year utility Finn Lesieur. 

In the second quarter, the Tiger defense shut down the Anteaters, allowing just one goal and doing just enough to tie the game at five a piece at the break. Sophomore utility Luke Johnston scored in transition in the final minute of the half to make it 5–5. 

Senior attacker Yurian Quinones gave the Tigers their first lead of the contest early in the third quarter, but Irvine had an answer, tying the game less than a minute later. The next two Tiger goals would come courtesy of Caras and junior defender Vladan Mitrovic. However, the Anteaters simply refused to back down, scoring two more in the final two minutes to tie the game at eight. 

After the sides once again exchanged goals, the game was tied at nine with just under two minutes remaining. Senior attacker Pierce Maloney would draw a penalty shot off a pass from Ohl. JP Ohl stepped up to take the penalty shot, converting it to give Princeton a 10–9 lead. After Irvine missed a chance to tie the game, Ohl found Caras to put the game to bed. The goal was Ohl’s sixth assist, tying his career high and also sealing a hat trick for Caras, his second in three games. After the first quarter, the Princeton defense was elite, allowing just five goals in 24 minutes of game time. First year goalie Kristóf Kovács had 14 crucial saves for Princeton. 

Less than 48 hours later, the Tigers played yet another Big West opponent ranked in the Top 10, No. 10 University of California Santa Barbara (14–12, 1–2). In another thrilling affair, the Tigers narrowly pulled out an 11–10 win in overtime. 


“Both UCI and UCSB are very talented teams so to come away with two wins was great, but even more important was the experience we got playing in two highly contested matches that came down to the wire,” head coach Dustin Litvak told the Daily Princetonian. “I think it not only set the tone for the rest of the week but also provided us with a situation we hadn’t faced all year, overtime, which can pay dividends if it happens again.”

It was once again another first half filled with goals for both sides. After the Gauchos scored the first of the contest, it was first year attacker William Swart and Quinones scoring to make it 2–1. The Tigers would not let the Gauchos lead for the rest of regulation. Quinones would score once more to make it 3–2 heading into the second period. 

Looking to upset the Tigers, the Gauchos would not back down, going toe-to-toe with Princeton to make it 6–5 at halftime. The second quarter was all junior utility Roko Pozaric. The Tiger’s leading goalscorer (55) has scored in every game this season and scored a hat trick in the second quarter to pace the Tigers. 

Coming out of halftime, both sides were looking to break away. In the grueling eight minutes of play in the third period, neither side managed to score. Sophomore goalie West Temkin made crucial saves to keep the Gauchos at bay in the quarter.

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“Both goalies played well recording double digit saves in both games, Kristof in the first and West in the latter,” Litvak wrote to the ‘Prince’. 

Heading into the fourth quarter, the Gauchos would tie the game at six. However, goals from Ohl and Maloney put the Tigers up 8–6 with under two minutes remaining. It looked like it was all but done until attacker Logan Sutter scored and assisted two goals in consecutive possessions to send the game into overtime and shock the Tiger fans in attendance. 

In overtime, the Gauchos would strike first to take their first lead since it was 1–0 early in the contest. With UCSB inching closer and closer to an upset, Litvak and his team refused to back down. LeSieur would score followed by a power play goal from Mitrovic to make it 10–9 Princeton. After Santa Barbara tied the game at 10, it was Mitrovic once again scoring the game-winner and giving Princeton an important win after an exhausting 38 minutes of play. 

“The best game we’ve played so far this season”: Tigers fall in heartbreaker to Bruins 

Less than 36 hours after playing an overtime game against the Gauchos, the Tigers would head to Westwood to play none other than the No. 1 ranked University of California – Los Angeles Bruins (20–0, 4–0 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation). Litvak would be coaching against legendary head coach Adam Wright. Litvak was his assistant coach at UCLA from 2013–2015 and won a national championship with the Bruins in 2014. 

The Tigers were looking to do something they had never done, beat the Bruins, who own a perfect 16–0 record against Princeton. Pozairc and Mitrovic would score the first two goals of the match, silencing the Bruin crowd early. However, the Bruins would bounce back, with four straight goals to take a 4–2 lead.

LeSieur and Maloney would find the back of the net in the first period, but the Bruins would have a 5–4 advantage after one. The Tigers refused to back down and let the Bruins walk over them, scoring three goals to the Bruins two in the second to tie the game at seven at halftime. Pozaric, Maloney, and LeSieur all scored once more in the period to pace the Tigers. 

The third period saw both sides find success defensively, with the Bruins allowing Princeton to score just once. It was Mitrovic who found the back of the net for his second of the game, but the Tigers trailed 9–8 after three. 

In the fourth, it was Mitrovic again who scored two more goals for the Tigers to tie his season high (4). However, the Tigers' efforts were not enough as they fell in heartbreaking fashion, 12–10. Despite the loss, Litvak and his squad held their head up high, as they competed against the consensus best team in the country who was coming into the contest undefeated on an 18 game winning streak.

The Tigers found a lot of success defensively and were able to contain attacker Rafael Rafa Vergara, who is the frontrunner for this year’s Cutino award, awarded to the best player in collegiate water polo. Vergara had one goal the entire game and struggled to get anything going against Kovács, who had yet another double digit performance with 10 saves. 

“Rafa is an extremely dangerous player, and we did a nice job both individually and collectively being aware of where he was at, at all times,” Litvak added. “I really liked how the guys embraced the challenge of guarding the current likely favorite for the Cutino award this year. Our success in the man-up this game was due to better ball movement, patience while staying aggressive, and just better finishing”

Wins No. 19 and No. 20 on the season

On Thursday, the team traveled north to play four games in the annual Julian Fraser Memorial tournament hosted by Santa Clara University. The first two games of the tournament for Princeton would come on Friday against  No.15 Pacific University (11–8, 0–1 West Coast Conference) and fellow WCC conference team, No.14 San Jose State University (7–8, 1–1). 

Against the fellow Tigers, Princeton got off to a strong start, paced by a first quarter hat trick by Caras. Leading 4–2 at the end of the first quarter, Princeton would replicate the performance in the second quarter, going up 8–4 at the half. 

"I think we have been much better about moving the ball quickly and attacking higher probability shots as they open up," Caras told the 'Prince'. "A perfect example of this in my opinion is JP, who has the team high of 52 assists and also has one of the highest shooting percentages as the 4th leading scorer. I think continuing to be calculated in our attack and furthering team chemistry will help us."

In the second half, Pacific would never threaten as Princeton would come away with a comfortable 16–9 win. Senior attacker Alex Roose would find the back of the net for Princeton in the match, scoring his first goal of the season. 

Playing two games in one day is never easy, as the Tigers played the San Jose State Spartans shortly after. After the Spartans got the scoring started, Mitrovic, Swart, and Quinones all put their names on the scoresheet to make it 3–1 Princeton. 

Unlike the previous games of the trip, the first half of this contest was a tight defensive battle by both sides. Junior utility Mason Killion would score the lone goal in the second period as the Tigers held a narrow 4–2 lead at halftime. 

After Roko Pozaric scored two goals to make it 6–3 early in the second half, it was all Spartans. Shocking the Tiger fans who were in attendance in Santa Clara, the Spartans scored four unanswered and held the Tigers scoreless for almost eight minutes as they led 7–6 with just under six minutes to go in the game. 

However, the Tigers had experience in close game situations. Goals from Maloney, Killion, and Quinones gave Princeton a 9–8 lead with just under three minutes remaining. With 32 seconds left and in need of a goal to ice the game, it was none other than George Caras who put the Tigers in double digits and sealed a 10–9 win. 

"I’ve always believed that we have a championship caliber team, but potential means nothing if we don’t continue growing. We have another month to prepare and I’m excited about the opportunity we have ahead of us," Caras added.

Tigers drop fourth game of the season to Pepperdine, handle Fresno Pacific 

On Saturday morning, the Tigers had yet another marquee matchup that would draw the attention of water polo fans across the country. A rematch against the No. 4 ranked Pepperdine Waves (19–4, 1–0 West Coast Conference). Previously, the Waves had gotten the better of the Tigers at the MPSF Invitational Tournament a month ago, beating Litvak’s team 15–11.

Perhaps one of the biggest headlines for the match was Pepperdine goalie Antonio Knez ‘23, who graduated from Princeton this past May and was regarded as one of the best goalies in the history of Princeton’s program. Knez, who is now at Pepperdine using his last year of eligibility, has been one of the best goalies in the country and filled an important hole for a Waves team who has been in need of a dominant goalie for quite some time.

“We all love Tony and are very happy that he is playing well. I don’t think the fact he knows us makes it difficult to gameplan, he is just a very talented goalie,” Litvak told the ‘Prince’ when asked about the struggles of playing Knez. 

“For our team to be successful, we need to have balance. You can see in many of our games, we have several different scorers, and that is what makes this team special,” he added. ”When it comes to the NCAA tournament, if we make it, no matter who we play, they will be preparing for us, so all of our guys need to be ready to go. We talked a lot about that this week.”

This time around, it was a much different story, and most of the game was a defensive showdown between two of the top six teams in the country. The first quarter saw each side find the back of the net just once, with LeSieur getting on the scoresheet for Princeton.

The second quarter saw Kovács dominating in goal for Princeton, allowing just one more goal while goals from Mitrovic, Killion, and Ohl saw the Tigers go up 4–2 at the break. Coming out of halftime, it was Pozaric who scored for Princeton to give them a 5–2 lead. 

However, the Tigers would be held scoreless for the next 13 minutes of the contest, a stretch that saw the Waves score four goals to make it 6–5 in the fourth quarter. A goal from Caras allowed Princeton to tie the game at six, but ultimately a goal from the Waves on a power play sealed a 7–6 win for Pepperdine. 

Despite the loss, there were a lot of positives for Princeton, who held the Waves to their lowest total the entire season. Kovács shined in goal for the Tigers, with 16 saves against the No. 4 team in the country. 

The second game of the day came against unranked Fresno Pacific (3–19, 0–2 Western Water Polo Association). Litvak utilized most of his 26-man roster en route to a comfortable 15–7 win. The Tigers led 5–0 after one and 9–1 at halftime and never looked back. Temkin tallied 11 saves in the contest. 

Now, with the Tigers returning to the East Coast, they have once again shown the country that they will compete with the best teams in the country. This coming weekend, the Tigers will resume conference play as they hit the road once again to play Brown, MIT, and Harvard. 

A trip like this is a true testament to the work that Dustin Litvak has done for this program since his arrival in 2018 and goes to show how far the program has come in five years. In his first season with Princeton, they lost to Big Four programs like Stanford and UCLA by double digits. Today, they go toe to toe with these same programs, with far fewer resources and time dedicated to the sport. It goes without saying that Litvak has made the Garden State a desirable destination for high school athletes. 

Litvak put it best, saying, “If you come here, you can have it all. You will get the best education in the world, a very high-level water polo experience on a team that is nationally competitive, an opportunity to have a full college social life, and have your summers free to travel the world, get internships or jobs or study abroad; all of which can set you up to continue to thrive after leaving this amazing campus.”

Hayk Yengibaryan is an associate editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’ Please send corrections to corrections[at]