In a sport dominated by West Coast teams, it was left up to Princeton to carry the banner for the Eastern side of the country in the 2011 Men’s Water Polo Championship.

By all accounts, the Tigers did a pretty good job of launching themselves into the offseason with plenty of reasons to be even more optimistic about 2012.

After getting waxed by USC 17-4 in the first semifinal game in early December in Berkeley, Calif., the Tigers came back and upset the other losing semifinalist, UC-San Diego 9-7.

I always tell the guys that when you put the cap on you’re not a freshman, you’re not a senior, you’re a water polo player.
-- Princeton coach Luis Nicolao

“It’s great. It’s great for our program, it’s great for polo on the East Coast,” Princeton coach Luis Nicolao said.

It marked the end of a season in which some young Tigers established themselves as future forces and into the age-old water-polo question about when or if a team from the East will ever win it all.

“Obviously we’re real excited with the outcome,” said Nicolao, who had to be especially glad that his leading scorers that day were freshman.

Drew Hoffenberg, who is from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif,, had four goals, and Thomas Nelson, from Walnut Creek, Calif., added three, capping the action with a blast from way outside as the shot clock expired that punctuated the victory. For that matter, freshman Matt Weber, who is from Greenwich, Conn., scored a goal that day, too.

But since the tournament began in 1969, no non-California team has ever won, or for that matter, even made the title match. This season, USC won an unprecedented fourth consecutive crown while Princeton won the third-place game for the second time in three years.

“Over my career it seems relatively the same to me,” veteran UC-San Diego coach Denny Harper said. “I guess there are a few teams that have emerged and added some depth to East Coast strength. But this is kind of how it always goes.”

In 1995, the NCAA switched from having eight teams converge for the tournament to four.

“This is the sixth time I’ve been in third-place game,” said Harper, who last played in it in 2006 and beat Navy. “I don’t particularly care for it, because every single time we’re in a bit of a situation where we have an awful lot to lose and not a whole lot to gain. Because every single time we are the higher-ranked team and it was no different this time. We’re 10th in the nation and I think Princeton is around 17th or 18th.

“They were clearly more motivated and I think we were doing what we could to just win the ball game and, I guess, protect our ranking, but Princeton is a very emotional group and they came out firing. The situation is always difficult. I’m not a big fan of the four-team tournament, I miss the eight-team tournament, I think that’s the right thing to do, but that’s another story.”

UCSD’s Josh Stiling gave credit to Princeton.

“They were playing to win the entire game. We were playing not to lose and they were playing to win,” Stiling said. “They had a lot of heart.”

And young balance. Hoffenberg finished with a team-high 47 goals, Weber 45 and Nelson 34. Junior Tim Wenzlau had 38 and yet another freshman, Kayj Shannon, scored 35. And the Tigers’ goalie, Ben Dearborn, is a sophomore.

“We know we have a strong nucleus for next year,” Nicolao said. “At the same time, there’s going to be a lot of competition back East and we have to prepare to be that much better. We’re not going to surprise anybody like maybe we did this year. I always tell the guys that when you put the cap on you’re not a freshman, you’re not a senior, you’re a water polo player. You all come from good club programs, you all have played in high-level games, whether in high school or the summertime, and once the whistle blows you just have to go out and play.”

TWO OUT OF THREE

Princeton won the third-place game for the second time in three seasons, defeating UC-San Diego. The Tigers scored twice in the final 1:34 in the win.

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He’s right about the East. For example, Princeton beat Navy 11-9 in overtime and then lost to the Midshipmen 10-5 during the regular season, but then beat Navy 10-7 to win the Eastern Championship and make it to the NCAA tournament.

“For me, this was a very cool experience,” said Nelson, who is from the Bay area. “I would watch the NCAA championships and seeing those guys and wondering how could we ever be like that, but through hard work it can happen and that’s what this showed and I was the one in the pool this time and not just watching. It was a really cool experience.”
Winning makes it cooler.

“It means a lot,” Hoffenberg said. “Traditionally all the West Coast teams have been the powerhouses and they’ve really dominated the NCAA. A few years ago we actually came in third when it was at Princeton, which was great, and now to win out here it shows that more parity is coming, especially when we have so many freshmen and sophomores. It shows that the future of East Coast water polo is pretty bright and that there’s actually some chance of dethroning a top-four team.”

Nicolao hopes so.

“We’ve had a lot of close games in the past with some of the top four teams and have lost some heartbreakers,” the coach said. “I keep telling the guys that one day we’re going to win one of those games. I’m not sure there’s much we can do differently, but next year these guys will have a lot more experience and if we’re fortunate enough to get back here again maybe we’ll have a better shot in that first round.”