Dec. 6, 2009

By Jon Marks
Special to

PRINCETON, N.J. - Consolation games, perhaps the most misnamed terminology in sports, are  never fun.

By definition they’re played between the teams that lost the previous outing, which automatically removes much of the competitiveness and other intangibles that are inherent when the stakes are higher.

Don’t tell that to Princeton, though. The Tigers celebrated a surprising 6-5 third-place win against Loyola Marymount, which had taken powerful UCLA to the final minute of overtime in the quarterfinals, as if it had won it all. They posed for pictures with the third-place trophy and did everything but throw coach Luis Nicalao into the pool,

“We’re so happy to win a Final Four game,” said Princeton’s Mark Zalewski, who scored two goals for the 16-12 Tigers. “We didn’t really come in expecting to win any games. So this is tremendous.”

His coach didn’t quite agree. “I was hoping to win a game,” laughed Nicalao, who knew the Lions would be down after coming so close to earning a spot in the title game. “I wasn’t happy to just be here.

“But we talked pre-game about showing we belonged.  That (LMU) is a quality, quality team. Unfortunately, we got a team not on their ‘A’ game. … But 5-6 years from now, it’s not gonna matter when you look in the record books.”

By then he’s hoping water polo remains one of the few NCAA sports where they do have consolation games. “I love it,” said Nicalao, following Princeton’s first ever Final Four win in the sport. “I never understand whey teams come this far to play one game.”

After such an emotional and close loss on Saturday, LMU coach John Loughran knew from the moment his team got on the bus for the ride to the pool on Sunday, that his players’ heads wouldn’t be in the game.

“I could see it in their body language,” said Loughran, whose team missed a chance to take the early lead when Princeton’s Mike Merlone stopped Tibor Forai on a penalty shot, setting the tone for the day. `”I think I saw energy from two guys.

“But I definitely think they should have a consolation game.  In fact we talked last night about rebounding. We said ‘Winning the national title next year (when LMU has all but one player back). starts today.’”

But Princeton, getting a stellar performance from Merlone in goal had other ideas. And Nicalao’s team entered the game, “hoping they’d miss some early shots and get frustrated. The longer you keep it close, the more momentum you build to give you a better chance for  victory.”

Indeed, that formula paid off for the Tigers.

HONORED: USC’s Jordan Thompson, who scored two goals in his team's 7-6 win over UCLA in the championship game, was named Tournament MVP.   “It’s hasn’t set in,” said Thompson.  “I wasn’t expecting it.

“I’m always the workhorse of the team, so I really don’t have anything to say.”

Joining Thompson on the all-tournament team were teammates Shea Buckner and J.W. Krumpholz, along with UCLA’s Scott Davison and Ben Hohl and Loyola Marymount’s Tibor Forai.  

The second team was comprised of UCLA’s Josh Samuels, Cullen Hennessy and Chay Lapin, Princeton’s Matt Hale, Mark Zalewski and Eric Vreeland and LMU’s Edgaras Asajaviius.

“CELEBRITY” SUPPORT: Once he gets back home, expect USC coach Jovan Vavic to hear from his good friend,  USC football coach Pete Carroll. “He’s been a great supporter of our program,” said Vavic. “He’s one of those coaches I’d like to be like.”