Men’s water polo is dominated by California teams. In the 43-year history of the NCAA Championships, every title game has paired two teams from the Golden State. But Princeton is emerging as a challenger to the West Coast’s supremacy. Twice in the last three years, Princeton has defeated a California school to earn third place at the NCAA Championships. This season, the Tigers hit the water as the top-ranked team outside of California.
Princeton’s 9–7 victory over UC San Diego in the 2011 NCAA consolation game featured a breakout performance by Drew Hoffenberg ’15. Facing a lineup that included two of his former teammates at The Bishop’s School in San Diego, Hoffenberg scored four goals and added an assist. He has carried that momentum into this season, leading the Tigers with 25 goals and 31 steals in 11 games to give the team a 7–4 record as of Sept. 27.
Hoffenberg picked up water polo when he was 8 years old. “I wanted to be a junior lifeguard, but I didn’t know how to swim, so I thought water polo would be a great way to learn,” he said. After a few years as a goalie, he moved to a field position and his career took off. Hoffenberg had an offer to play at Stanford, one of the traditional West Coast powers, but chose Princeton.
Even as a first-semester freshman in 2011, Hoffenberg became a team leader, helping a previously inconsistent Princeton team make a deep postseason run. “He’s like a coach in the water, he sees everyone around him so well,” head coach Luis Nicolao said. “You could see, as the season progressed, he got more confident and the guys got more confident playing with him.”
The very best California programs continue to far outplay their East Coast rivals. In September, Princeton lost 16–4 to UC Berkeley and 20-3 to UCLA. “Those guys practice double what we do and train year-round,” Nicolao said. “It’s just a different focus.”
Unfazed by blowouts at the hands of Western powers — as well as closer losses to East Coast rivals Navy and Brown — Hoffenberg and the Tigers have their sights set on duplicating last year’s playoff run, regardless of what the regular season holds. “It doesn’t matter who wins games now,” Hoffenberg said. “It matters who wins them at the end of the year.”
If the Tigers make another postseason charge, it will go through Princeton’s DeNunzio Pool, which hosts the Eastern Championships Nov. 16-18. The players hope the atmosphere will resemble the last time Princeton hosted a major tournament — the 2009 national championship, in which the Tigers won a game at the NCAAs for the first time in school history.