Plus One! George Washington Water Polo Beats Princeton in NCAA Opener, Books Date with UCLA

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George Washington celebrating historic win Saturday over Princeton, its first-ever NCAA victory. Photo Courtesy: Christine Yardley

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

PRINCETON, NJ. All season long, Barry King, head coach for George Washington’s men’s water polo team, has preached to his players the importance of “Plus One:” not just qualifying for, but winning an NCAA first round match.

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After advancing to the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament last year, the Colonials fell short of a trip to California and a shot at an NCAA Final Four berth. King suggested a: “Just happy to get the t-shirt” attitude doomed GW to a gut-wrenching 15-13 OT loss after leading host Harvard late in the 2017 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament opener.

The GW coach determined that wouldn’t happen again, though late in the third period of Saturday’s 2018 NCAA’s opening round match in Princeton’s DeNunzio Pool it seemed unlikely that the Colonials were going anywhere but home. Thoroughly outplayed, they languish four goals behind the host Tigers, aiming for their own quarterfinals trip to California.

Tiger freshman Wyatt Benson unexpectedly gave GW a shove—literally—that turned out to be the key moment in an electrifying 14-13 overtime victory that advanced the upstart Colonials (23-6) to a meeting with mighty UCLA (22-4), next Thursday at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center. The winner will advance to a Final Four match-up on Saturday with second-seeded USC (28-3).

Benson’s push-off—actual or accentuated—after an exclusion 30 seconds before the end of the third period not only gifted the Colonials a five-meter penalty shot, it sparked a spectacular GW comeback, as the visitors rallied for six-straight goals, wiping out all of what was once an 11-6 Tiger lead.

“It’s good to know that we can win games a lot of different ways,” an exhausted but ecstatic King said immediately after the biggest win in program history. “We hadn’t been in that kind of a deficit all year.”

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Henry Maas celebrating. Photo Courtesy: Christine Yardley

Referencing Benson ill-timed “kick them while they’re down” kick, the second-year GW coach agreed the foul was a factor in his team’s stunning comeback.

“That penalty gets us to within three, and that’s a much-more reachable [deficit] than four,” King said, then added: “Much more importantly [was] how willing our guys were to empty the tank and put it on the line.

“I couldn’t be happier for them.”

After a successful first-year campaign for him and freshmen Benson, Keller Mahoney and goalie Billy Motherway, Princeton Head Coach Dustin Litvak was disappointed—both about the pivotal call and ending up on the wrong side of a late collapse.

“I’ve never seen a penalty in the backcourt before,” Litvak said about the call against his precocious freshman. “There’s no question that was a turning point in the game. We get a big lead, [get] called for an offensive, then an exclusion then a penalty…. It’s hard to take that blow.”

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Princeton and Head Coach Dustin Litvak left wondering what went wrong. Photo Courtesy: Christine Yardley

Thinking that his team would play “possession to possession” while ahead, Litvak missed out on a reunion with Bruin Head Coach Adam Wright, whom he worked under the previous five years.

“Unfortunately, we began to push more and more, creating counter-attack opportunities for the other team,” he lamented. “We have to be better and smarter with the ball. They’re a team that loves to push the transition—we knew that going in.”

A positive take-away from the match was the stellar play of Motherway. Thrust into a starting role late in the season, the former Mater Dei standout was instrumental in Princeton’s end of season sprint that got them an NCAA berth for the first time in three years.

Watching from the stands and was Vojislav Mitrovic, Princeton’s all-time saves leader who graduated last spring and backstopped that 2015 Tiger team to NCAAs.

“Keep in mind that for Motherway’s first season in college, he did an amazing job,” Mitrovic said, then tossed in his thoughts about what went wrong for his former teammates.

“They relaxed, they lost focus, and the rest is history.”

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Princeton’s Matt Payne (#12) chipped in four goals but couldn’t overcome DJ Davis or GW. Photo Courtesy: Christine Yardley

The unexpected conclusion obscured how auspiciously the match opened for Motherway and George Washington. On the Colonials’ first possession of the match, Andras Levai broke in alone on the Princeton cage, faked, but was stymied by the freshman.

Levai then had another breakaway at the seven-minute mark also stuffed by Motherway. A minute and a half later, Nick Schroeder got GW on the board, connecting on a four-meter strike. Princeton answered back when center Logan McDonald beat Colonial goalie Austin Pyrch with a backhand shot.

A minute later, Benson also exploited GW’s interior defense to hit on the first of his three goals. With thirteen seconds remaining in the first, Atakan Destici converted a great pass from Levai into the equalizer. By then Motherway already had seven saves—half of his total for the game—establishing he’d be tough to beat.

“We knew we had to make [Motherway] move, especially the way they were going to guard the half of the pool that Atakan was on,” King said.

The second period started well for the home team, as Matt Payne, in his final appearance wearing Princeton orange and black, struck for three-straight goals in two minutes, giving the Tigers a 5-2 lead. His first strike came at 7:36, with his team enjoying a man advantage; the second was a successful conversion of a five-meter penalty called against Destici; then the senior from Laguna Beach completed the natural hat-trick at the five-minute mark with another power play score.

Motherway and the Princeton defense kept the Colonials in check until Destici broke through again with a bar down shot at 4:10. Benson and GW’s Finn Lillis traded goals three minutes later, but the Tiger defense maintained a two-goal advantage, denying Levai on the break with time running out.

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GW’s Andrew Mavis, Jack Kerwin and goalie Austin Pyrch are tough on defense. Photo Courtesy: Christine Yardley

The third period turnout out to be their rallying point, but it began poorly for the visitors. On the Tigers’ first possession, Alec Mendelsohn beat Pyrch with a lob. Henry Maas immediately answered to make it 7-5, beating Motherway with a skip shot. Benson hit on a power play strike at the seven-minute mark, but Andrew Mavis scored ten seconds later to keep GW’s deficit at two.

Scoring on three-straight possessions, Princeton threatened to blow their visitors out of the water. Payne scored his fourth goal of the game at 4:37 and Maloney connected twice: once after a GW defensive breakdown, then on a breakaway, putting the home team up 11-6 and forcing George Washington to burn a time-out.

“I kinda yelled at our first years a little, [saying]: You’ve had a whole season of playing high-level stuff but our effort looks like first week of camp,” King said about his time-out lecture. “I didn’t have to say a whole lot after that because we were getting good opportunities, we just weren’t finishing.”

Whether it was what the GW coach said or their drive to get that Plus One, the Colonial offense roared to life. Jordan Blosser scored at the 2:30 mark with GW up a man, then Destici converted the 5-meter penalty resulting from Benson ill-timed kick.

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Zach Slaughter gives his team a 12-11 lead late in the fourth period. Photo Courtesy: Christine Yardley

Pyrch made a big save on Payne to open the fourth period, and Levai finally solved Motherway on the break, the first of his three straight goals that caused Colonial fans to dance in the aisles. He hit a rocket from distance, then—after again being stopped on the break—the sophomore from Hungary scored at 4:16 to pull his team even. When Zach Slaughter untied it with less than a minute to play, beating Motherway with a sneaky shot, the stands erupted as GW gained its first lead since early in the contest.

But the Colonial fans’ all-out euphoria was interrupted, momentarily. Michael Swart saved the Tigers’ season, scoring on the power play with 26 seconds left to tie the match at 12, sending it to extra time.

After Maas gave GW a 14-12 lead in the opening minutes of the first overtime period with back-to-back weak side goals, Princeton’s only response was a five-meter blast by Mendelsohn. It wasn’t enough to stop the Colonials from a date with destiny as the first George Washington polo team to advance to California.

4 comments

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Thomas:

      Thanks for your good words; the Colonials are a GREAT local story; a polo program that went to it’s first-ever NCAA tournament last year and now has won an opening round match and is going to California. What a GREAT narrative for the 50th anniversary of the national championship; let’s hope GW has a great experience at Avery Aquatic Center on Thursday (more to come on this…).

      Your correspondent

  1. avatar
    Denise

    Amazing game! So excited to see this passionate win by GW. Great article and wonderful photos.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Denise:

      Thank you for your comments. Yes, it was an exciting match, and the atmosphere at DeNunzio Pool was inspiring.

      I am still mentally working out how the Colonials came back; it was quite unexpected BUT this team appears to be on its way to bigger and better things.

      Let’s hope we can all enjoy the ride,

      Your correspondent