By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
Luis Nicolao, head coach for the Princeton men’s and women’s water polo teams, is a true original. A fan of the Oakland Raiders and Bruce Springsteen as well as a fierce competitor who played polo at the U.S. Naval Academy, Nicolao—now in his 19th season at Princeton—has shaped the Tigers into the strongest varsity water polo program on the East Coast.
Following an outstanding playing career at Navy, where he graduated in 1992 as the Academy’s all-time leading scorer, Nicolao served his tour of duty and then returned to the Middies in 1996 as an assistant coach.
He came to Princeton in 1998 where his teams have consistently excelled. The Tiger men have won nine Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Southern titles, four Eastern crowns and made four NCAA tournament appearances. Over that same period, Princeton women have captured nine Southern titles, four Eastern crowns and three NCAA berths.
At the conclusion last Sunday of his annual elite water polo camp, where 60+ age group players worked with coaches from George Washington, Harvard, Iona, Penn State Behrend and Wagner—as well as Ashleigh Johnson, recently awarded the Peter J. Cutino Award as the nation’s best female college water polo player—Nicolao spoke with Swimming World about the Ivy League’s recent dominance of the East, expectations this season for his men’s team, Johnson’s future, and how his beloved Raiders will fare in the 2017-18 NFL season.
The Ivy League has captured NCAA tournament berths in 2014, 2015 and 2016. What has changed in the competitive balance in Easter water polo?
I don’t know that there’s change. I think things go in cycles. You look at Navy winning three years in a row [2006-2008]
The new alignment has helped us—that the three Ivies are in their own conference. It gives us more of a chance to win because now we’re no longer playing Navy, [Johns] Hopkins, Bucknell, George Washington. The chance of an Ivy winning is now greater because there’s less teams in our conference. That’s probably the biggest factor.
You’re going to see more Ivies win now that we’ve got the split conference because there’s less opponents for us to go through.
What makes Brown, Harvard and Princeton consistently good in men’s water polo?
What I see on the West Coast happening is club coaches that are now starting to have kids of their own that are recognizing that education is a big part of [their kid’s future]. Some coaches maybe seven, eight years ago weren’t pushing their kids to go East, but now coaches are much more willing to have their kids go all over the country.
We’re seeing a lot more top-level players leaving California, understanding what’s being offered to them from a Hopkins, Princeton, Brown, Harvard, Navy. That’s the maturity of high school coaches that you didn’t see seven, eight years ago.
Also, some of the West Coast rosters are so big, kids get to come East and play as a freshman. That’s a big selling point.
Let’s talk about your freshman class; how impact will Miles Cole, Casey Conrad, Alec Mendelsohn and William Victor Ueberroth will have this season?
This class coming in gives us a bench that we can now stay at the same level as the starting group. Every team that we’ve had success with at Princeton, it’s because of depth. Depth wins you championships. Everybody has a great first six. It’s how you come off the bench with your next 7 – 10 that makes the difference.
Every year’s different and obviously, those players we lost last year brought something to us. But more importantly to us is health. Not only did we not have a big senior class, we had some injury problems. Sean Duncan hurt his hand, Chris Xi hurt his cheekbone in a game. Our bench [last year] got weaker.
With not losing a lot and bringing in a good freshman class and guys being healthy, we’re going to be a lot deeper this year than we were last year.
And there’s your star freshman – now sophomore – Sean Duncan. What do you expect for him this season?
Duncan was one of the top hole sets in the entire country last year. [He] had an amazing freshman year. Unfortunately, towards the end of last season he jammed his thumb and he tried to play through the pain. He’s a fierce competitor. You have to drop on him. And now you’re bringing a freshman hole set—Miles Cole—who’s another big kid. We’re going to have two legitimate hole sets this year that will really strengthen the position for us.
When he’s on his game—as he was two years ago when you won the East— Vojislav Mitrovic is a difference maker. In his final season at Princeton, does he have enough to lead the Tigers to another NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament berth?
Voja’s really excited about his senior year. The thing that he’s capitalized on is taking advantage of what Princeton has to offer, to the point last year he got too spread out. And it impacted polo. He got a bit worn out and missed some practices.
This year he’s focused on water polo. He’s coming in with a different focus. He’s a high-level goalie and this is his last year to compete. I’m looking forward to see how he steps up this year.
Jordan Colina, who was number two in scoring 956 goals] for Princeton last year. Can you say that pound-for-pound he’s the best player in college water polo?
I think so. Jordan, the first thing you notice is: “He’s so small!” But you don’t realize how smart he is. He has the ability to stay out of trouble on defense and has an amazing motor. He’s always moving on offense, always countering hard.
He’s one of those guys who you just don’t teach it; he’s always one play ahead. He knows what to do with the ball before it hits his hand. I’m looking forward to a huge senior year from him because he’s a dominant player.
He’s not the biggest player but—as Japanese men’s team demonstrated last month at the 2017 FINA World Championships—size is not the only criteria for winning polo.
Our sport’s constantly evolving. When you watch the game and you see what’s happening with the drop [pass to the hole set] and a lot less movement, the rules change. For us, it’s about movement. We can’t just pass the ball around and shoot. We’ve got a Mikey Swart, Jordan—these guys have got to move. You’re your opponent is a lot of big men, they hate guarding little guys, little drivers. So, it’s Jordan’s job to take that guy who’s bigger than him and put defensive pressure on him. Make him play defense, get him in foul trouble.
For us it’s constantly about trying to create motion, trying to get movement so there is confusion and ejections for guys who are hips down and hands down.
We can’t just sit around and play catch. You see the European teams—they’ve got six elite shooters in the water. They can do that. We can’t.
Ashleigh Johnson was on the pool deck helping out campers? What does the future hold for her?
She just talked to Adam [Krikorian, head coach for U.S. Women’s Senior National Team]. She’s coming back. She took a little break, she missed it.
I knew she was missing [polo] because she was always the first to “like” everything on social media. Every accomplishment the girls were having overseas you saw Ashleigh liking it.
Her senior year was a real grind academically and athletically. That Olympic hangover is tough. I think it mentally dragged her down some.
But she talked to Adam and she’ll be going to the next Olympics [in 2020].
Last season may have been a grind but—as the first-ever player from the East to win the Cutino Award—it’s arguably one of the best anyone from Princeton has ever had.
It’s awesome for our sport and it’s awesome for Ashleigh. Coaches that confided in me how they’re voting [said] she took the hard way. She didn’t go to a big-four school. She’s not surrounded by Olympians. She was asked to do a lot more every year on a team that wasn’t as talented as some of those other teams.
It’s a great accomplishment, it’s great for our program and for East Coast water polo.
What’s your prediction for the Oakland Raiders this season?
I’m giddy. This is going to be a big year for the Raiders.
It’s hard because the NFL’s so balanced. You can be one-two players [difference] from 4-12 to 12-4. They have the pieces and I’m excited for that next 3 – 4 year run to [Las] Vegas.
If the Raiders aren’t playing the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, I’m going to be very disappointed.