BERKELEY, Calif. – For the second time in three years, the Princeton men’s water polo team notched a victory over a California team and a third-place finish at the NCAA Championships. After falling in a lopsided semifinal game to eventual national champion USC Dec. 3, Princeton rebounded with an exciting 9-7 upset over the University of California, San Diego Dec. 4.
“It was a hard-fought game by both teams,” head coach Luis Nicolao said of the consolation game. “It was a shame somebody had to lose, but we’re very happy we won.”
The showdown with UC San Diego was the major focus of the weekend for Princeton, which had been outscored 17-4 by a USC team that was simply too much to handle. Though the third-seeded Tritons were favored against the Tigers, it appeared to be a winnable game for Princeton.
The Tritons took an early two-goal lead, but attackman Drew Hoffenberg ’15 pulled Princeton back into the game with two goals of his own. UC San Diego scored a third goal before the close of the period.
In the second frame, Princeton tied the game on a goal from senior center Mike Helou. But the Tritons’ Brian Donohue responded with a sensational goal on a reverse spin move.
The goal gave the Tritons a 4-3 lead and the momentum, but Hoffenberg responded with fireworks of his own. Locking eyes with a teammate across the pool, he fired a no-look shot past surprised Triton goalkeeper David Morton to knot the score at four going into the half.
The Tritons opened the scoring in the third quarter as Graham Saber tallied his third goal of the day. But Princeton responded with goals on back-to-back possessions to take its first lead of the game at 6-5.
Hoffenberg added his fourth goal of the game on a penalty shot early in the fourth quarter and it appeared that Princeton was in the clear. But the Tritons were not finished, as driver Josh Stiling scored goals on consecutive possessions to tie the game at 7 with less than four minutes remaining.
Princeton’s freshmen responded yet again. First, Hoffenberg found freshman center Thomas Nelson who blasted a shot home for an 8-7 lead. After a UC San Diego turnover, Princeton possessed the ball and called a timeout with 40 seconds remaining and 11 seconds on the clock. Coming out of the timeout, the Tigers executed their plan flawlessly. Hoffenberg triggered a play that finished with Nelson gunning a 20-foot bounce shot into the goal as the shot clock expired. The goal cemented the game, as the Tritons were unable to score on their final possession.
Hoffenberg led the Tigers with four goals and two assists. He also demonstrated uncanny leadership for a freshman, often barking orders at elder teammates. His impact was not lost on his foes.
“Drew Hoffenberg played extremely well today and carried that team through every single quarter,” Stiling said. “That fourth quarter, he drove his team to get those extra two goals.”
The future is bright for Princeton, as eight of its nine goals were scored by freshmen. Between Hoffenberg, Nelson, and the stable of freshmen and sophomores that regularly contributed for the Tigers this season, the team could well find itself back at the NCAA Championships in the coming years.
Vikram Rao ’11 contributed to The Weekly Blog as an undergraduate and served as sports editor of The Daily Princetonian.