Tigers Claim Eastern Crown Over Upstart Johns Hopkins in CWPA Final

Micheal Randazzo
Water Polo Planet
12/01/2015

Eastern Champs
Photo provided by CWPA

With his team slated to face unheralded Johns Hopkins Sunday in the Collegiate Water Polo Association's Men's Championship final, Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao tossed and turned before the Tigers' biggest match of the season.

The title match offered a lose-lose proposition: #11 Princeton, the East's premier program, facing a Hopkins team that was the surprise of the tournament.

"I woke up at 4 a.m. [Sunday morning] and couldn't get back to bed," Nicolao said about his restless night. "We knew when Brown lost that we had Hopkins. We'd played them three times this season already [all Princeton wins] and they had nothing to lose.

"Everybody's gonna say we should win but I knew in my heart of hearts that it was going to be a battle."

And a battle it was, as the Blue Jays—the first Division III program to advance to the CWPA finals—pushed the favored Tigers to the limit before dropping a 7-6 decision. With the win Princeton captured its first Eastern title since 2011 and with it a berth in the 2015 NCAA tournament.

Goalie Vojislav Mitrovic, MVP of the tournament, and senior set Thomas Nelson delivered for the Tigers when they needed it most.

Mitrovic repeatedly stymied the Hopkins attack, collecting 13 saves. Nelson scored four times in the title match, including a penalty shot late in the third period that broke a 4-4 tie and gave Princeton a lead they would not relinquish.

Nelson's coach was blunt in assessing his talented attacker, named to the CWPA All-Tournament team.

"Tommy's a beast," Nicolao said. "He's got a fierce intensity and he's just so strong [in the middle]."

Nelson, whose stellar career at Princeton can be measured by three straight final appearances and now an Eastern title, explained his team's singleness of purpose at the CWPA tournament.

"However poorly or well we do during the season it really doesn't matter," Nelson said following the match. "We just need to prepare for [Easterns] and this weekend we did really, really well."

And, in a comment that rang true for both teams, he added: "It all comes down to 'Can you dig out the win?' and we did that today."

For a brief moment Sunday it appeared that Hopkins would dig out a shocking win for the third consecutive day. After a 7-6 win Friday over perennial power St. Francis Brooklyn and a stunning 8-7 victory Saturday over top-seed and reigning East champ Brown, the Blue Jays had ample opportunities to engineer another upset.

Superb goaltending by sophomore John Wilson and timely scoring by senior Kevin Yee (four goals) kept their team in Sunday's match, helping it rally from a 3-1 first period deficit to tie the score at four midway through the third.

Following a match penalty to Princeton's Eric Bowen at 3:04 for flagrant misconduct, it appeared that Hopkins' moment had arrived. Freshman Andreas Katsis lined up for a 5-meter shot that would give his team its first lead of the match.

In a freak occurrence, the ball slipped from Katsis's grasp before he could shoot, much as the match would then slip away from the Blue Jays. They failed to convert on the subsequent power play—Hopkins scored only twice all tournament in 21 man up opportunities—and the favored Tigers pounced. When Nelson was awarded a 5-meter shot a minute later, he didn't miss, giving his team a lead it wouldn't relinquish.

Then Mitrovic demonstrated why he's been dominant in his sophomore year. As Hopkins desperately looked to tie late in the match, the 6-4 goalie, who registered 13 saves, stood tall in his cage, allowing just a lone score in the fourth.

"His sophomore year was just more comfortable," explained Nicolao, who admitted that the Serbian native struggled with academics in his first season at Princeton. "This year you could just see how much great a sense of ease [he had] and it showed in the water."

The sting of a one-goal loss to their Southern Division rivals was softened by the history the Blue Jays fashioned this weekend. Already the CWPA Division III champs, a win over Princeton would have made Hopkins the first Eastern team offering strictly academic aid to capture an NCAA berth.

Wilson, spectacular in one-goal wins over St. Francis and Brown, deferred credit for his team's defensive success.

"We definitely ran the best team defense we have all season." Wilson said. "With such big hands and quick drops in front of me it's tough for the other team to put up more than eight or nine goals."

"We knew if we could get on a great run we'd get pretty far up the food chain," Hopkins head coach Ted Bresnahan said. "If we played good defense and relied on our strengths on offense we would get as far as that would take us… and it took us pretty far."

Bresnahan walked off with some hardware of his own—the Dick Russell Coach of the Tournament—and praise for his team's superlative effort, along with a touch of regret.

"I'm proud of my guys," Bresnahan said, then, perhaps referencing the misplayed penalty, added: "I still think we had the ability to win that game but what are you gonna do? Coulda, shoulda woulda."

CWPA Champs
Photo provided by CWPA