With fifth-place finish, women’s water polo turns heads at NCAAs

Twelve months ago, the women’s water polo team was ranked No. 10 nationally and earned the sixth seed at NCAA Championships, where it took on a California power in the first round. As a clear underdog against No. 3-seed USC, Princeton fell behind 6-1 at halftime before losing 14-2.

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Goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson ’16, left, set an NCAA Tournament record with 38 saves. Utility Katie Rigler ’14 was named to the All-Tournament second team. (Photos: Courtesy Office of Athletic Communications)

Last weekend, the Tigers returned to NCAAs as the sixth seed, again with a No. 10 national ranking, and they again faced a third-seeded West Coast powerhouse. Princeton again fell behind at halftime, 6-2 — and that’s where the similarities ended. Instead of succumbing to another second-half blowout, Princeton allowed only two goals after intermission and scared UCLA with a late rally before falling 8-6.

Head coach Luis Nicolao said he felt this year’s team entered with a different attitude than the one that made its NCAA debut in 2012. “We’re more experienced and deeper,” he said. “Other than three or four bad minutes in the second quarter, we played really well.”

A two-goal loss may not sound like a big deal, but in this case, it was practically historic — it marked the closest any East Coast school has come to knocking off a California team in the first round of NCAAs (the previous best was Indiana’s 8-5 loss to UCLA in 2011). In a sport dominated by only a handful of schools — UCLA, USC, and Stanford have combined to win all 13 national titles, and the runner-up has come from that trio 11 times — Friday’s game indicates that the rest of the nation, and the East Coast in particular, may be catching up.

Many eyes were on Ashleigh Johnson ’16 in her NCAA Championships debut, and she delivered in a big way. A highly touted recruit who turned down offers from several of the California powers, Johnson made nine saves to keep the Tigers close against UCLA — and followed with 15 saves against two goals in a rout of Iona, then 14 saves in a 12-10 overtime win over fifth-seeded San Diego State that secured fifth place.

Johnson’s total of 38 saves broke the tournament record of 36, set by Loyola Marymount’s Rachel Riddell in 2005. Not a bad showing for a rookie.

“She had a great weekend,” Nicolao said. “She allows you to do so much on defense … she’s an intimidating force for opponents.”

Johnson made several big saves down the stretch of Sunday’s fifth-place game, including a tough one to her right side that preserved a 10-10 tie with 1:30 left, but Princeton’s field defense in front of her played an equally important role. Several steals helped the Tigers hold San Diego Sate scoreless for the final 11-and-a-half minutes of play, allowing Princeton to come back from a 10-7 deficit to win in overtime. Jessie Holechek ’15 scored both of the Tigers’ goals in extra time.

After finishing sixth in 2012 and fifth this year, the Tigers can dream of improving even further and doing what no East Coast team has done before — beating one of the three California powerhouses at NCAAs — especially with most of their core returning next season. Getting back to the tournament is no guarantee (Princeton needed overtime to escape the Eastern semifinals in each of the last two seasons), but if they do so, no opponent will feel comfortable with Johnson in the cage.

Quick takes

WOMEN’S LACROSSE lost to Duke in sudden-death overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Princeton won 17 of the game’s 22 draws, but Duke won the last one, which began the second overtime period, and scored within 45 seconds to end the Tigers’ season at 10-7.

Princeton almost never reached overtime, as Duke gained control with seven minutes left and tried to run out the clock. Caroline Rehfuss ’13 forced a turnover with three-and-a-half minutes remaining and Erin Slifer ’15 scored her second goal of the game to pull even; the Blue Devils earned a free position shot in the waning seconds of regulation, but Caroline Franke ’14 stopped a point-blank attempt to stay alive.

WOMEN’S GOLF star Kelly Shon ’14 finished at 7-under-par in three rounds of the NCAA East Regional at Auburn, becoming the first Tiger since Mary Moan ’97 to qualify for the NCAA finals, which will be held at Georgia on May 21-24. Shon was under par in all three rounds, shooting 4-under over the final nine holes on Saturday; she advances to the national round for the first time in three regional appearances, qualifying by four strokes.

MEN’S GOLF will play as a team at the NCAA Regional at Washington State next weekend, its first postseason appearance in seven years. In their last five regionals, the Tigers haven’t finished better than 24th; they will certainly place higher this year, if only because there are only 14 teams this time.


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Kevin Whitaker ’13 is an economics major and former Daily Princetonian sports editor.