For the last two years, Princeton has been used to being No. 1 in Collegiate Water Polo Association Southern Division play. The team comes into this weekend’s championship as the two-time defending champion, off back-to-back perfect conference records to boot.
But the Tigers are starting out this year’s championship in an unfamiliar place — No. 2. Princeton is seeded behind Indiana, though the Tigers (29-1 overall, 5-0 CWPA Southern) hold a No. 11 national ranking to the Hoosiers’ (19-5, 11-0 Western) No. 13. The seeding was determined in large part by the strength of each team’s conference as well as their margin of victory throughout the season.
It will be the toughest matchup Princeton has seen in a CWPA final in years. Both teams will enter the competition on a hot streak, with Princeton winning its last 14 games and Indiana its last eight. Neither team has been defeated by a school outside of California and Hawaii this year.
Despite having just two seniors on the roster, the Tigers are coming off of an especially strong year. The team tied the program record for most wins in a season, matching the 2012 squad, thanks in large part to its effective offense. Princeton played like a well-oiled, goal-scoring machine this season. Six of its players scored at least 30 goals, with senior Katie Rigler leading that category with 62, earning a third straight CWPA Southern Player of the Year honor. She is just the second player in the program’s history to earn the award at least three times, after Elyse Colgan ’07, who did it four years in a row. Classmate Molly McBee has also found the back of the net 44 times, while juniors Ashley Hatcher and Jesse Holechek have scored 48 and 36 times, respectively. Sophomores Diana Murphy and Pippa Temple round out the offensive effort with 36 and 31 goals, respectively.
On defense, Princeton has sophomore sensation Ashleigh Johnson tending the net. Johnson holds an impressive .720 save percentage so far, in addition to being named the Southern Division Rookie of the Year last season.
The Tigers’ first game will be a matchup against Ivy League rival Harvard, who received an at-large bid to the tournament. Pending a victory Princeton would play either Bucknell University or Hartwick College in the semifinals, two teams Princeton has beaten this year.
At stake is the CWPA crown and a berth to the NCAA championship. In last year’s Eastern tournament, Princeton made easy game out of George Washington, winning 16-3 in the first round, before narrowly avoiding a loss to then No. 17 Hartwick. Princeton barely scraped by with a 12-11 double-overtime win and took the crown over Michigan. In the NCAA tournament, the Tigers lost in the quarterfinals to UCLA in a close 6-8 battle before beating UC San Diego to finish fifth. It was Princeton’s first trip to the national tournament.
The Tigers have won just three CWPA/Eastern Championships in their program history — twice in the last two years and once in 2000. On Friday at 1:30 p.m. at Bucknell University against Harvard, Princeton will start its hunt for a threepeat and a chance to go back to NCAAs for the second time.