Since the beginning of the NCAA women’s water polo championship 13 years ago, one team is crowned as the best in the nation every May. Number one is a coveted spot. Players dream of it during the preseason and the offseason, and they dream of it in early morning practices. But for teams that don’t come from California, that dream has never become a reality.
Since the first NCAA championship was played in 2001, no school outside of the Sunshine State has ever won the title. No non-California school has ever won the consolation game either. No squad not from California has ever moved past fourth place.
Princeton, however, has different plans this year. The No. 8 team is the only women’s water polo program on the East Coast ranked in the nation’s Top 15. The Tigers have rallied behind sophomore sensation Ashleigh Johnson’s goaltending talent to kick their season off to a perfect 7-0 start.
“We’re coming off of a great year last year and hope to have similar success this year,” sophomore utility Pippa Temple said. “We’ve started the season off well and look forward to even more great games later in the season, especially over spring break in California. Our goal is to go for the three-peat in Eastern Championships and make it back to the NCAA tournament this year.”
The seven wins that the Tigers have secured this year have almost all been easy ones, including a shutdown of top-20 Michigan on Feb. 16. Princeton’s toughest test so far was against No. 13 UCSD at the Princeton Invitational. The Tigers, down 6-7 going into the final quarter, made a last-minute rally on the experienced arm of senior utility Molly McBee to take the game in a 9-8 thriller.
McBee’s classmate Katie Rigler has proven to be one of Princeton’s biggest offensive threats this year. The utility is tied for first in goals scored with 12 on the season. She shares the spot with junior utility Ashley Hatcher, who also has 12 goals so far, in addition to six assists.
“This past weekend was a testament to our potential this year in terms of beating top-ranked teams. Although we earned a high ranking from our success last year, it meant a lot to earn that spot throughout wins this season as well,” Rigler said. “This past weekend also gave us a lot of confidence going into the rest of the season. We know we are capable of much more, and we are excited to prove ourselves in California and hopefully in NCAAs again.”
Juniors Taylor Dunstan and Jesse Holechek are key to Princeton’s success in the offensive waters. Dunstan has scored six goals, and Holechek has found the back of the net 10 times so far. Sophomore Diana Murphy, who put 31 goals in last season, already has seven this year. Freshman Hannah Lapkin adds even further depth to the Princeton lineup. The rookie two-meter is shooting .500, with five goals and three steals to boot.
“The season is looking really great for us so far. We have had a couple really good weekends and we are undefeated so far,” Lapkin said. “It’s really exciting being a freshman and getting to play in big games.”
All this offensive power rests on the heels of Johnson. It’s hard to imagine that the goalie would outdo her standout rookie season when she broke Princeton’s single-game saves record in her college debut against the then-No. 4 team in the nation. This year, however, she did it again. In the season opener, Johnson broke her own single-game Princeton saves record, setting the new bar at 20. She holds 10 steals to her name as well.
The 2014 Tigers’ biggest test will be their spring break trip to California, where they will play the top teams in the country — the ones that have dominated the NCAA Championships for over a decade. Should Princeton continue its winning ways, the Tigers can keep that non-California dream alive.