“Play to prove you belong.” That was the advice men’s water polo coach Luis Nicolao gave his team before the NCAA consolation match Dec. 6. The Tigers, who advanced to the Final Four after claiming the Eastern Championship two weeks prior with a stunning victory over archrival Navy, had fallen the previous afternoon to No. 1 USC, 13–3. Princeton, the lone tournament team not hailing from California, was predicted to finish in fourth place. But the combination of a creative offense, stellar goalkeeping, and the support of a capacity crowd at DeNunzio Pool helped the Tigers top Loyola Marymount, 6–5, and become the program’s first squad to capture an NCAA victory.
“This win was extremely significant for us,” Mark Zalewski ’10 said. “Since the East gets one automatic bid into the tournament, a lot of times the West Coast overlooks a team like ours. But this year, we stepped up and won.”
Goalkeeper Mike Merlone ’11 set the tone for Princeton in the opening moments of the first quarter, stopping a five-meter shot by Loyola Marymount’s Tibor Forai. With less than a minute remaining in the period, Zalewski converted a five-meter shot for the game’s first goal.The teams were tied at 3–3 early in the third quarter when Princeton surged ahead with a 3-0 run (Douglas Wigley ’10, Billy Tifft ’13, and Zalewski netted the Tiger goals). Loyola Marymount scored twice in the fourth quarter but failed to penetrate a tough Princeton defense during its last possessions.