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Back to Back: No. 11 women’s water polo repeats as CWPA champions

A group of women pose in front of a pool wearing the same shirt holding up the number one sign.
Junior utility Kayla Yelensky was named the tournament MVP after seven goals over both contests.
Photo courtesy of @pwaterpolo/Instagram

On a trek to Cambridge, Mass, the No. 11 ranked Princeton women’s water polo team (23–6 overall, 10–0 Collegiate Water Polo Association) had one objective: two games, two wins.

“Our main goal was to go out there, enjoy the moment, and play for each other in order to win as one collective unit,” Junior utility Kayla Yelensky wrote to The Daily Princetonian.


That’s exactly what head coach Derek Ellingson’s squad did after a 9–7 win against No. 24 Brown (17–16, 4–6) in the semifinal and a 10–9 win against No. 13 Michigan (21–11, 7–2) in the championship game.

The Tigers flew past the Harvard Crimson to win the CWPA championship last year at home. This year, the Tigers had to win in foreign territory. Fewer fans and unfamiliar territory proved no problem for the Tigers. After taking the Brown Bears for ransom on Saturday, the Tiger squad secured a victory as Princeton students partied to Lil Tecca at Lawnparties.

Tigers survive a tough test in the semifinal

Only one team’s season survives the CWPA tournament, and the Tigers weren’t going to let it be anyone else. Due to their flawless regular season, the Tigers attained the first seed and received a bye to the semi-final, where they met a challenging Brown squad.

While the Bears gave the Tigers trouble in both regular season meetings, the Tigers triumphed in each matchup, coming out on top 9–6 and 12–10, respectively.

The semifinal proved no different than the grueling, blow-for-blow regular season matches. After the first quarter, both teams were tied at three, with two tallies from Yelensky. At the half, Princeton led 6–5 following a highlight goal from sophomore utility Shanna Davidson.


Brown head coach Felix Mercado — who won the Doc Hunkler Coach of the Tournament — and his squad were determined to knock off the Tigers. After being tied multiple times in the third, Yelensky rifled away a shot to give the Tigers an 8–7 lead.

The Tigers never looked back, hanging on to win 9–7 after a goal from senior utility and captain Kaila Carroll with just over three minutes remaining in the game.

An exceptionally coached and prepared Brown team tested the Tigers resiliency and resourcefulness. With one challenge behind them, the Tigers faced a short turnaround to prepare and focus for the Championship against the conference giant Michigan Wolverines.

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Back to Back 

On Sunday, at noon, the ball dropped in the middle of Blodgett Pool. The Tigers and Wolverines clashed to keep their season alive. Similar to the Brown game, this was the third meeting between both sides this season. Both regular season matches came down to the wire in Princeton’s favor. The following 32 minutes were no different.

Yelensky opened the scoring early in the first quarter after beating the Michigan goalie cross cage. However, it was the only Princeton tally of the quarter. Two subsequent quick goals put the Wolverines up 2-1 at the end of the opening period.

The determination of the Wolverines was imminent at the start of the second quarter. Opening the scoring with another two goals, the Wolverines were on a 4–1 run — things seemed dire for the Tigers. 

Carroll demonstrated her veteran status with a poised tap-in to halt the Michigan run at 4–2. Using the newly established momentum, junior center defender Grace Houlahan netted one more to cut the deficit to one heading into halftime.

The Wolverines shot back, however, and opened the second half with two more unanswered goals. The Tigers once again faced a three-goal deficit, but tallies from first year two-meter Charlotte Riches, sophomore attacker Ava Houlahan, and Yelensky kept pace with the Michigan offense, with the quarter ending 7–6 to the Maize and Blue.

Despite a one-goal deficit, the final 8 minutes were anyone’s for the taking.

“There was no doubt that we wanted it more, so we dug deep and made it happen,” Yelensky remarked.

The Tigers started the final quarter off on the right foot. On the first possession, Ava Houlahan hit a bar-in from six meters out courtesy of a pass from junior attacker Rachael Carver. Carver has a staggering 70 assists on the season and last season broke the all-time program record for assists in a season (81).

Soon after, first year utility Olivia Krotts, who is mainly used at two meters, demonstrated her incredible flexibility as she pinned a shot from 7 meters out, thrusting the Tigers to their first lead since the 1–0 start. Yelensky then tallied her third goal of the game, cushioning the Tigers lead at 9–7.

The Wolverines, not quick to give up and admit defeat, scored two goals and tied the game with less than two minutes to play. With just over a minute remaining, Ava Houlahan hit the game winning shot, piercing through the hands of the Michigan goalie.

After a stellar defensive stand, which ended in two missed Michigan shots, sophomore goalie Lindsey Lucas corralled the ball to safety. Lucas blocked eight shots in the championship game.

With 50 seconds left, the Tigers still had to play offense. At the expiration of the 30 second shot clock, Yelensky entered the ball to Krotts, who drew a game sealing exclusion, ensuring a shot clock reset and Princeton possession for the remainder of the clock.

As the game clock expired, the Princeton players and coaches admired the surreal back-to-back victory moment. The coaching staff jumped into the water to celebrate with the players, embracing and splashing in the middle of the pool. Kayla Yelensky was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

With a triumphant weekend, the Tigers secured an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. On Monday night, the NCAA bracket was released. Princeton will play the No. 2 seeded University of Hawaii (22–3, 7–0 Big West) on May 10 at 7:00 pm EST (4:00 p.m. PST.) The University of California Berkeley is the host of the NCAA tournament.

The Tigers opened their season against Hawaii with a 10–6 loss. The Tigers have 10 days to prepare for the rematch in hopes of a different result.

“I’m very excited to continue to play with our team,” Lucas told the ‘Prince.’ “Hawaii was the first game of the season, and it will be great to see how our team has improved since then. Our team will never back down from an opportunity to prove ourselves.”

JP Ohl is a staff Sports writer for the ‘Prince.’ 

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