Prior to the hiring of head coach Dustin Litvak in 2018, No. 6 Princeton men’s water polo (27–5 overall, 9–1 Northeast Water Polo Conference) had won just four conference championships in its 22-year history. Fast forward five years and the Tigers are in the midst of a dynasty under Litvak, successfully completing a three-peat and winning the conference title in four of the last five seasons.
Led by junior star utility Roko Pozaric, who scored five goals in the championship game, and first-year goalie Kristóf Kovács, who made a career-high 21 saves, the Tigers held No. 11 Harvard (25–4, 9–1) to just five goals en route to an 8–5 victory at Blodgett Pool. With the win, the Tigers clinched a spot in the NCAA water polo championships as the fourth seed and will open play against the University of California, Irvine Anteaters on Dec. 1. The Tigers beat the Anteaters in October, 11–9.
Coming into the game, Harvard was one of the hottest teams in the country. Led by James Rozolis-Hill, the Crimson had won 19 straight games, eight of which were against ranked opponents. On Oct. 29, exactly three weeks before this matchup, Harvard beat Princeton in sudden death overtime, 14–13.
“We were really disappointed with our defensive performance against Harvard the last time we played them, taking nothing away from them as they are extremely talented on that end of the pool,” Litvak told the Daily Princetonian. “We watched the film several times and knew a lot of it just came down to effort. The last three weeks of practice have been very intense and focused and that translated into today.”
Looking to avenge the loss and get a bid to the NCAA tournament, the Tigers came into the match hungry. After beating Iona University (12–18, 4–8) in the semifinals 19–9, Princeton got off to a strong start at Harvard.
After sophomore utility Logan McCarroll drew an exclusion — a more severe foul — junior defender Vladan Mitrovic got the scoring started for the Tigers. The next possession, McCarroll drew yet another exclusion. This time, his drawn exclusion set up the first goal of the game for Pozaric to make it 2–0 Princeton early.
“It meant a lot to me to help us win our third consecutive NWPC [Northeast Water Polo Conference] title,” Pozaric added. “The energy in the pool and on the bench was amazing and is something that helped us push through. We hope to continue down this road and see where it takes us in the NCAA tournament.”
After the Crimson scored the following possession to cut the deficit to one, both defenses stepped up. Both teams did not allow a goal in the next two possessions. With four minutes remaining in the first, Pozaric scored his second of the game to make it 3–1. At the end of the first period, it was 3–2 Tigers and Kovács had six first-quarter saves to lead the defensive effort.
On the first possession of the second quarter, the Crimson drew a five-meter penalty. Rozolis-Hill calmly put the ball away past the arms of Kovács to tie the game at three, but Princeton responded immediately. McCarroll drew his third exclusion of the game, opening the door for Pozaric to score his hat trick.
“We were able to hold Rozolis-Hill to one goal on a penalty shot he didn’t earn as well as hold Harvard scoreless in the fourth quarter today,” Litvak told the ‘Prince.’ “It is a testament to the guys staying focused til the very end of some very grueling trainings.”
The last four minutes of the game were all Kovács, as he made seven straight saves to end the half. Meanwhile, Pozaric scored his fourth of the game. At the break, the Tigers held a 5–3 lead.
Pozaric is up to 74 goals on the season and 204 all-time. He is well on his way to becoming the all-time scoring leader for the Tigers — a record currently held by John Stover ’06, who scored 254 goals in his Princeton career.
Relive all of Roko’s five goals as he helped the Tigers to their third consecutive NWPC title! pic.twitter.com/UhDQa9MzMc— Princeton Water Polo (@Pwaterpolo) November 20, 2023
Crimson center defender Gabe Putnam — who scored the game-winner against the Tigers three weeks ago — opened the scoring in the first half to cut the deficit to one. McCarroll scored his first goal of the contest to make it a two-goal game once again.
McCarroll recently switched his position for the Tigers. He played center for the Tigers earlier this season as fellow sophomore utility Luke Johnston recovered from injury. With Johnston back in the mix, McCarroll has moved to the 1–2 side, a position he dominated in high school.
“I also want to point out Logan McCarroll’s inspiring performance today,” Litvak said. “He is such a fierce competitor and drew three exclusions, scored a very important goal, and had two assists. All of this while playing a position he hasn’t played all year until the last couple of weeks.”
Princeton 6, Harvard 4 / 5:43 3rd— Princeton Water Polo (@Pwaterpolo) November 19, 2023
Logan McCarroll finds the back of the net! pic.twitter.com/izC1ph3KOa
Harvard continued to threaten on the offensive end, but the Princeton defense came up big on multiple occasions. Heading into the final period, Kovács had 15 saves. The Crimson scored with a minute remaining in the third to make it 6–5. Unfortunately for the Crimson, they did not score again.
The Tigers took over the fourth quarter. Goals from Pozaric and senior utility Yurian Quinones sealed the 8–5 win, and Kovács ended the game with 21 saves — the second most in program history.
“It is easy to find motivation as we wanted to avenge the previous loss,” Kovács added. “I know what my team is capable of and we are going to help each other no matter what. The trust is mutual, so I have confidence in the cage, especially in games like this.”
Postgame, Pozaric was named the NWPC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player, while Litvak was recognized as NWPC Coach of the Year.
“Harvard is a very talented team and they put up a great fight. There is definitely something special about beating Harvard at Harvard,” Pozaric told the ‘Prince.’
“Our defense was really strong today and we didn’t allow much space for their best players to work with. I also have to mention our goalie Kristof who had a spectacular game. He definitely saved at least three 100-percent opportunities that Harvard had.”
When asked about the play about Pozaric and Kovács, Litvak had nothing but praise.
“These are two world-class athletes who have competed at such a high level in their respective countries and around the world. They know exactly what it takes to execute in the most important moments, and we are very fortunate to have them both.”
This game does not, however, mark the end of the season for the Tigers, and they are treating it as such.
“When we finished the game, I gave the guys a choice. We could walk over and wait for the awards to be passed out, or we could warm down,” senior captain and attacker Pierce Maloney told the ‘Prince.’
“Everyone looked at each other and decided to warm down. This was a reassuring moment for me — beating a talented team like Harvard at home is nothing to overlook, but once the job was finished, we refocused on the next objective. Before we started the season, we set a lofty goal: to compete for a national championship. It’s great to see everyone on board with this, even when emotions run high.”
With the win, the Tigers became the Collegiate Water Polo Association team since Navy in 2008 to win three straight conference championships. The dynasty is well in effect for Litvak and his team, who have a belief in them that this will not be the peak of their season. The conference title sends the team to the NCAA championships, hosted by the University of Southern California from Dec. 1 to Dec. 3.
“They are a very talented team with an excellent coaching staff,” Litvak said about the Anteaters. “Beating them back in October has no bearing on this upcoming match whatsoever.”
“It really comes down to execution at this point in the season, so we aren’t going to look to do anything drastically different but just tighten up all the pieces and make sure we arrive at NCAA as one cohesive unit,” he added. “The parity in the NCAA this year has been incredible, and we are hoping to add to the chaos.”
The Tigers will certainly add to the chaos and not be an easy out. After a historic season came to an end last season in the NCAA quarterfinals, Princeton will be coming in hoping for more. With Litvak at the helm — alongside the leadership of Maloney, the stellar play of Pozoric, Mitrovic, and Kovács — anything is possible.
“We will fight harder than anyone else for the chance to play together again tomorrow,” Maloney said. “We have always had the closest team in the nation — we are best friends in and out of the pool — and when the threat of the season-ending is upon us, there’s no one I’d rather ride into battle with than these guys.”
Hayk Yengibaryan is an associate Sports editor at the ‘Prince.’ Please send corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.