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NCAA men’s water polo quarterfinal preview: Princeton vs. U.C. Irvine

A man in the water eggbeating up preparing to shoot a water polo ball towards the goal while the other players in the water watch.
The Tigers played the Anteaters earlier this season on October 15th, beating them in their own pool, 11–9.
Picture of Nicole M. Maloney

At the USC Uytengsu Aquatics Center on this coming Friday, Dec. 1, the No. 4 seeded men’s water polo team (27–5 overall, 9–1 Northeast Water Polo Conference) will have a chance to make history. Since the NCAA expanded the postseason tournament in 2015, the Tigers have never made the Final Four. 

“Our message has been simple: win each day,” head coach Dustin Litvak told The Daily Princetonian. 

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“There is no need to get ahead of ourselves as we cannot control Friday right now, we can only control our effort, focus, and intensity level in each training. [The game] will come down to the team that stays to their game plan and executes in the critical moments. We talk a lot about staying present and quickly refocusing after an up or down moment, so we have put a lot of effort into that at practice this past week and that will be our focus on Friday,” he said.

Standing in the way of the Tigers will be a familiar opponent, the No. 5 seeded University of California Irvine Anteaters (18–9, 4–1 Big West). In a regular season matchup on Oct. 15, the Tigers emerged victorious, 11–9

Led by head coach Dan Klatt, the Anteaters come into their first NCAA tournament in 30 years riding high off an impressive season that includes five wins against top-10 teams. 

“We’ve had a lot of open discussion about what it means to dial in and put forth effort for two more weeks,” Klatt told the ‘Prince’ in an interview.

“We know that us [Irvine] and Princeton are evenly matched … We know that they’re very well-coached and disciplined in what they do, so we have to try and match that intensity and discipline and hope to have one more goal than them at the end of the game,” Klatt said.

For the Tigers, the player to watch will be star utility Roko Pozaric. The junior from Zagreb, Croatia has accumulated 74 goals on the season and was named both the NWPC regular season and tournament MVP. In the NWPC title game against the Harvard Crimson, Pozaric netted five goals to lead the Tigers to an 8–5 victory. Pozaric is also one of the fastest players in the country. Out of the 112 opening sprints he has participated in, he has come out on top 104 times.

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For Princeton, Litvak has coached the Tigers to be one of the best defensive teams in the country, allowing only 8.2 goals a game whereas the three teams ranked above them in the tournament have all given up more goals. The No.1 ranked UCLA bruins gave up 8.5 goals a game, No.2 ranked Cal Bears have given up 8.6 goals a game, while the No.3 USC Trojans have given up 8.9 goals per game. In recognition of Princeton’s success under Litvak, he was named both the NWPC regular season and tournament coach of the year. 

“They’re one of the most well-coached programs,” Klatt said about Princeton. “They wait for your mistakes and they capitalize on your mistakes.” 

There are a number of players to highlight for this Tigers team. Junior defender Vladan Mitrovic has a track record of scoring in big games. Against No. 1 UCLA, Mitrovic scored a season-high four goals. When the Tigers historically upset Stanford last season, Mitrovic also scored four goals in that contest. 

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“The key for us is gonna be … doing a good enough job on those guys [Pozaric and Mitrovic] without being so overly focused on it that it takes us away from playing against the other really solid players they have,” Klatt said about game planning against the Tigers. 

Mitrovic will also be key on the defensive end, where he will have the tall task of guarding Tyler Padua. The center from Huntington Beach was recently named to the All Big West Second Team after scoring 26 goals and drawing 50 exclusions on the season.

“Their centers are talented, but they also have guys that can put the ball away from the outside. There is a reason they are in the tournament. This is a very good team,” Litvak said. 

“Similar to Harvard, we will need to neutralize their inside threats while still staying active in our zone blocks, trying to force them to take the shots we want them to take. It will not be easy, but we have gotten a lot better at this over the second half of the season and I’m excited to see our defensive energy, cohesiveness, and determination,” Litvak added.

Perhaps the biggest x-factor for the Tigers will be sophomore utility Logan McCarroll. Earlier this month, McCarroll’s position was switched to the 1–2 side. This position switch proved to be crucial for McCarroll, who regained his form at the conference tournament. Heading into the tournament, McCarroll had not scored in 10 straight games. However, in the two tournament games, McCarroll scored five goals to go alongside four assists and five drawn exclusions. His efforts landed him a spot on the All-Tournament first team. 

In and out of the water, the Tigers are led by senior captain and Los Angeles native Pierce Maloney. Maloney has 30 goals, 40 assists, 41 steals, and 34 drawn ejections on the season. Junior center George Caras, who scored three goals last time around against the Anteaters and has 49 goals and 50 drawn ejections on the season, will also be playing in his hometown. 

To round out the field players for the Tigers, senior attacker Yurian Quinones will be a scoring threat from just about anywhere. Quinones has 34 goals and 40 assists and earned second-team honors at the NWPC tournament. Sophomore utility JP Ohl has been making history for the Tigers. Ohl has 62 assists on the season, good for second all time in a single season. He is the only Tiger in history to ever score 30 goals and have 60 assists in the same season. First year utility Finn LeSieur has 74 goal contributions on the season.

Ohl is a Sports contributor for the ‘Prince.’

The Tigers’ biggest strength lies in the goal, where they are lucky enough to have two of the best goalies in collegiate water polo. Sophomore West Temkin and first-year Kristóf Kovács have combined for a staggering 363 saves. According to Litvak, his coaching staff has yet to make a decision on who will start Friday’s contest. 

“I have said it before, but we are blessed to have them both and they raise the level of our training. At the same time, it is challenging to pick which one to play each game as they both would probably be the sole starter for almost any other team in the country. Our staff has not made a decision yet but will continue to evaluate this week,” he said.

For the Anteaters, all eyes will be on sophomore Luka Kristic. The attacker from Serbia has 43 goals and 28 assists for the Anteaters. Kristic has hit his peak as of late, scoring five goals and the game-winner against the University of California-Davis in the Big West tournament semifinals. 

Offensively, along with Padua, attacker Johann Thrall has shined in his first season of collegiate water polo. Thrall leads the Anteaters in goals scored with 48 goals and has had 15 multi-goal games. 

Similarly to the Tigers, the Anteaters have also split time between two goalies. Juniors Garrett Selby and Jacob Pyle have split time in the net, combining for 231 saves on the season. However, Pyle has been getting his number called as of late and fans can expect Pyle to get the start once more on Friday. 

“I’ll stay with the hot hand,” Klatt told the ‘Prince’ referring to Pyle. “He [Pyle] had a very good tournament and works so hard and has stayed consistent.”

Fans can expect a back-and-forth contest on Friday afternoon with a potential overtime game in the cards. The Tigers are 4–3 all time against the Anteaters, with three of those seven contests going into overtime. While the Tigers do enter the contest as slight favorites, the Anteaters will be no pushover.

The key for the Tigers will be to limit the quality shots the Anteaters are able to get off and have a balanced attack. For the Anteaters, they will need to limit their exclusions and not give Litvak’s squad many man up opportunities. They cannot afford to let Pozaric get hot and need to be active on the offensive end, driving and looking to draw exclusions to force the Tigers into uncomfortable territory. 

The winner of Friday’s contest will advance to the national semifinal on Saturday afternoon and likely play the No. 1 seed and 12-time national champions UCLA Bruins.

“If you want to make the type of ascension they have made as a program over the last three to five years, it is very clear how they’ve done it, where their focus and discipline lies,” Klatt said about the Tigers. “It’s cool to be able to play them because it’s a coach and a program we have a lot of respect for.”

Litvak added, “We know they will never give up, but this is the NCAA tournament, no one is giving up, no matter the score. I believe our guys are up to the challenge.”

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

Please send corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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