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Men’s water polo drops match to Crimson in sudden death overtime

Man with glasses stands with arms crossed next to pole looking down
Head coach Dustin Litvak looking on as his team was losing to the Crimson late in the fourth quarter 
Picture courtesy of Nicole Maloney.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass — 759 days. That’s the last time the No. 6 Princeton men’s water polo team (23–5 overall, 7–1 Northeast Water Polo Conference) lost a match to a conference opponent. 

However, every winning streak has to end sometime. As the sun began to set on Sunday evening in Cambridge, reality set in for the Tigers. Their 30 game winning streak against conference opponents had ended in an emotional rivalry game against No. 13 Harvard (21–3, 7–1) with the Crimson winning 14–13 in sudden death overtime. 


“Harvard played well and you have to give them credit for their energy and belief,” head coach Dustin Litvak told The Daily Princetonian. “They hit some incredible shots and at very timely moments and their goalie played very well.”

Before the emotional match on Sunday afternoon, the Tigers did take care of business early in the weekend — defeating No. 18 Brown (17–5, 5–3) on Saturday afternoon 14–7 and handling the MIT Engineers (11–11, 1–7) on Sunday morning 16–11. They won these two games despite not having Litvak present at either game.  

Harvard came into the rivalry on a 14-game winning streak that included five wins over ranked opponents. Princeton, on the other hand, had been in the midst of yet another record-breaking year, having come into the match with a 23–4 record and an unbeaten record in the conference. One of these hot teams would have to give in, and it took 40 minutes of water polo for one to do so. 

The Tigers would score the first goal of the game courtesy of a goal from junior utility Roko Pozaric off a counter-attack. However, the Crimson would respond. In front of a packed and loud crowd, Harvard would score four unanswered to take a 4–1 lead. 

Princeton would score the next two goals of the contest, but Harvard scored once more to take a 5–3 lead after the first period. Litvak, who constantly praises his team’s defense, was not happy about the start. 

“We know the way they like to play, and they have a lot of weapons,” Litvak told the ‘Prince.’ “We have to be more disciplined if we want the game to go in our favor. We can’t give up three penalties and allow them to go 6/9 on their man-up. We can’t only have two field blocks in a game where we are playing a lot of zone, and five on six. We have to help our goalies.” 


In the second period, the scoring would slow down, but the Tigers failed to make up any ground. Instead, Harvard would continue to apply pressure on the Tigers and force them to play from behind. Junior defender Vladan Mitrovic would score Princeton’s fourth of the game late in the shot clock off a pass from sophomore utility JP Ohl. The final Tiger goal of the half would come courtesy of a goal from junior center George Caras. The Crimson scored three in the second period to take an 8–5 lead heading into the break. 

At halftime, you could feel the energy on the Princeton bench. The team was experiencing something it rarely had done so far this season. There had only been two times this season that the Tigers were down at halftime, both coming in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament in September against No. 8 Long Beach State and No. 4 Stanford. 

The third period saw the Tigers dial in defensively. Key saves from sophomore goalie West Temkin and pressure defensively from gave Harvard just one goal in the third period. Princeton took a slight advantage of this, scoring two goals in the period to cut the deficit to two heading into the final period with a 9–7 Harvard lead. 

Heading into the final eight minutes with a 9–7 lead, Harvard knew that this would not be enough against a top-six team in the country. The Crimson scored the first goal of the final period to take a 10–7 lead, but Caras immediately responded to keep the pressure on the hosts. 

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With five minutes left in the contest, the Tigers found themselves down 11–8. First year utility Finn LeSieur came up big for Princeton with two crucial goals in the next three minutes to make it a one-goal game. After a crucial defensive stop, the Tigers would get the ball with under a minute remaining with the hopes of tying the game. 

With about 10 seconds remaining in the shot clock, Ohl would find Mitrovic, who would bury the shot in the back of the net, past the Crimson goalie, to tie the game at 11. 

“Taking the responsibility during big moments is rooted in the mutual trust between my teammates and me which has been built over time,” Mitrovic wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “It is the confidence they have helped me develop and the trust we share in one another during such moments.”

In the first overtime period, Pozaric would win the opening sprint for Princeton, but the Tigers would fail to score. The Crimson would score the lone goal of the first overtime period, taking a 12–11 lead into the final three minutes. 

Harvard would be doing this without arguably their best player, sophomore utility James Rozolis-Hill, who was recently named to the Cutino Award watch list. Rozolis-Hill got his third exclusion of the game late in the fourth quarter, ending his night earlier than head coach Ted Minnis would have hoped for. Pozaric, who leads the Tigers in scoring and has been the staple of Litvak’s offense since his first year in 2021, was also named to the watch list this past week. 

In the final three minutes, it was senior attacker Pierce Maloney and Caras who would score for Princeton to tie the contest at 13 all after Harvard also found the back of the net. The Tigers would get one chance to put the game away, but the Crimson would deny Maloney on a power play to force sudden death overtime after the sides remained tied at the end of the two three-minute overtime periods. 

In the sudden death period, it looked like the Tigers had found the winner when Ohl found Caras who buried the ball in the back of the net. However, the officials would determine that the ball left Caras’ hand after the shot clock buzzer sounded, waving off the goal and keeping the game alive. 

Harvard would take full advantage of this, with senior center defender Gabe Putman scoring the winner for the Crimson to upset the Tigers and stun the away side, 14–13. 

“For us, allowing 14 goals is far too many. While our attack needs a lot of work, scoring 13 goals should be plenty to get the job done,” Litvak said. 

“Once again, six on five was a factor in the outcome as we went 3/11, two of which we had six on four advantages on,” he added. “Our post-movement and shot selection reverted back to issues we had in September. Finally, our energy and our consistency have to be better. It takes tremendous discipline to stay on top when everyone is trying to knock you off. That is the current situation on the East Coast and hopefully, we learned a very valuable lesson today.”

Despite the loss, the Tigers are expected to remain the first seed heading into the conference tournament on Nov. 17. However, the loss will certainly affect the national rankings, where the Tigers currently sit at sixth. With new polls set to be released Wednesday afternoon, it will be interesting to see how much Princeton will drop. 

With the new championship bracket, the Tigers will likely drop to the sixth seed for the NCAA championships so long as they make the tournament. If the Tigers had beaten the Crimson, it was widely expected that they would head into the tournament as the fifth seed, with a likely rematch against No. 4 Pepperdine. 

Now, the Tigers must look ahead to next weekend, where they will host unranked Iona (10–13, 4–5) and Long Island University (6–19, 2–7) in games that they are expected to win by comfortable margins. Both games will be at Denunzio Pool, with streaming available via ESPN+. The Tigers will host LIU first Saturday at noon before playing Iona at 5 p.m., which will serve as senior night for the six seniors on the squad. 

“When you don’t appreciate it and respect how much everyone else wants to beat you, you end up in situations like this,” Litvak told the ‘Prince.’ “As much as our previous losses this year hurt, this stung a bit more. Harvard deserved to win today.”

Following this, all the attention will be on the conference tournament that will be hosted by Harvard. The squad must win the conference tournament to secure not only a bid to the NCAA tournament but also a third consecutive conference championship. 

“Our job is to make sure that isn’t the case if we see them again in a few weeks. We will come back to the pool on Tuesday, and we will see how resilient and motivated this group is,” Litvak added. 

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

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