Five Questions for Derek Ellingson, New Head Women’s Water Coach at Princeton

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Derek Ellingson, Luis Nicolao, Becca Dorst - Tiger Royalty. Photo Courtesy: D. Ellingson

Editor’s Note: The 2019 NCAA women’s water polo season officially opened on Saturday, January 12th with the ASU Invitational at Arizona State. Action continues this weekend for numerous NCAA varsity programs. Swimming World will provide previews of the seven varsity conferences—Big West, Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA), Golden Coast Conference (GCC), Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) and Western Water Polo Association (WWPA)—that will send teams to the 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament.

Rankings refer to the CWPA Women’s Varsity Preseason Poll that was released on January 16th.

If there was anyone in American water polo that deserved a shot at a head coaching job, it was Derek Ellingson. And with Luis Nicolao leaving Princeton for Navy exactly a year ago, the Tigers’ men’s and women’s top jobs were up for grabs.

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After a protracted search, the selection committee settled on an innovative solution, bringing in Dusty Litvak to coach the men and be the assistant coach for the women, and elevating Ellingson to the women’s head coaching position while retaining as assistant to the Tiger men. As experiments go, this one risks being a tad too innovative—but it has paid off so far, as the tag team of Litvak and Ellingson got Princeton’s men to the 2018 NCAAs.

[Five Questions for Dustin Litvak, New Princeton Men’s Water Polo Coach]

Now it’s the women’s turn, and the 6-6 former player from New York City’s Queens College who twice traveled to the NCAA Final Four, once as a star for the Knights (1997) and once as head coach (2002), is readying the Tiger women—his team—to open the season February 1st against host Arizona State in the Arizona State Invitational.

During the Tigers’ first week of practice, Ellington took time out to respond to Swimming World’s questions about a 14-year career at Princeton, the prospects for his team, and just how the new arrangement with Litvak has worked out.

– You’ve been around Princeton as an assistant for more than a decade. What’s the biggest different now that you’re head coach of the women’s team?

As head coach, I feel more excitement but also more pressure. It’s a good pressure that I am honored to take on. I am thrilled to be the one who makes the decisions rather than the one who makes the suggestions. As head coach, I am focused on winning games against the best teams in the country while developing young student athletes who lead and serve others with integrity, kindness, and respect.

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Becca Dorst with the Tigers in 2018. Photo Courtesy: Princeton Athletics

– Last season you stepped in as an assistant for Becca Dorst, who ended up being named 2018 CWPA Coach of the Year. How did that experience help prepare you for this upcoming season?

Becca did an incredible job leading the Princeton Tigers in 2018. She taught an old dog many new tricks. I was most impressed by her ability to motivate the team and to help them play beyond their own expectations. Last year had so many highlights and we plan to build on all those successes.

– You’re responsible as the assistant to men’s Head Coach Dustin Litvak—and he’s now you’re assistant for the women. How does this somewhat unusual arrangement work?

Dustin is a great coach to be partnering with. Early on, we established that the head coach would be the leader and the voice of the team. The role reversal from the fall to the spring brings a great balance to the Princeton University Water Polo Program. It is awesome that we have such an experienced coaching staff. We love bouncing ideas off each other and drawing from each other’s knowledge of the sport.

– Princeton has produced some very talented players over the last decade, but none more so than Ashleigh Johnson. How has Johnson’s time playing for the Tigers helped you and your staff land top American women?

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Ashleigh Johnson—greatest ever Tiger polo player. Photo Courtesy: Princeton Athletics

Ashleigh set a precedent, for men and woman, that you don’t have to go to a West Coast school to play high level collegiate water polo. She demonstrates that Princeton University is a special place with many opportunities for student athletes beyond the pool and beyond the classroom. Ashleigh has not only helped Princeton Water Polo reach new heights, but she has helped the entire sport of water polo grow.

– Princeton was the surprise of the East last year, making a run to a second-straight CWPA title match. What can you expect from your team this season?

While we only graduated three seniors, they were responsible for 140 goals and 9 years of starting experience. This season, we return four starters and have a talented group of freshman that are already making strong contributions. We brought in another goalie which has heightened the level of competition at practice.

This team has a fighting spirit and I look forward to seeing all the things they will accomplish this year.