Princeton—Surprise Team in the East—Captures CWPA Women’s Water Polo Regular Season Title

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Princeton seniors Chelsea Johnson, Haley Wan and Sydney Cheong are all smiles on a victorious Senior Day. Photo Courtesy: Princeton Athletics

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

In a women’s polo season filled with many compelling story-lines—the Cal Golden Bears’ rise to the top, the impending demise of Hartwick polo and new programs at Fresno State and McKendree—one feel-good story from Princeton, New Jersey stands out. In January, two weeks before the Tigers were to begin their season, long-time coach Luis Nicolao resigned, leaving assistant coach Becca Dorst to take the reins of a women’s program that Nicolao had helmed to 442 wins the last two decades.

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Adding to the numerous challenges facing the Tigers’ first-time coach was the loss to graduation of goalie Ashleigh Johnson, the first-ever Peter J. Cutino Award winner from an Eastern program. Expectations of Princeton success in the varsity bracket of the Collegiate Water Polo Association this spring were understandably low.

But—thanks to Dorst’s coaching and strong senior leadership—the Tigers have thus far triumphed.

This past weekend, Princeton (21-7, 8-0 CWPA) and its neophyte coach completed a perfect run through the CWPA regular season, sweeping #19 Harvard and Bucknell at home finishing out a perfect conference campaign that includes back-to-back wins on March 10 over #16 Hartwick and #10 Michigan.

Fueling this run—launched after a lop-sided 17-4 loss at USC—has been the impressive play of seniors Haley Wan (66 goals, 39 assists, 53 steals) and Chelsea Johnson (Ashleigh’s sister) (46 goals, 14 assists, 32 steals) along with junior Lindesy Kelleher (51 goals, 42 assists, 36 steals) and sophomore Amy Castellano (41 goals, 31 assists, 50 steals). Throw in the stellar play of freshman goalie Marissa Webb (266 saves / 7.88 GAA) and the Tigers are a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming CWPA tournament, to be contested April 27-29 at Bucknell’s Kinney Natatorium. At stake: an automatic berth in the 2018 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament.

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Princeton Head Coach Becca Dorst. Photo Courtesy: Princeton Athletics

Swimming World reached out to Coach Dorst for her thoughts of about what has proven to be a season-long delight for American polo fans.

– The USC loss must have been tough on you (as a UCLA grad) and your team. But, it sparked an eight-match winning streak, including wins over Michigan, Hartwick and Indiana.

The loss to USC was just like any other game we’ve had this season. Both our wins and our losses have been incredible learning experiences. This season started out with a much more competitive tone than in years past when we decided to travel west to ASU and play four top-ranked teams (Arizona State, Hawai’i, Loyola-Marymount, UC San Diego).

From that weekend, the very beginning of season, the girls have had an extremely mature perspective on what our goal is. We are trying to become the best team we are capable of becoming—and that comes from a lot of hard work, good competition and, usually, some wins and losses.

The success we had this past weekend to end conference play is a testament to the cohesiveness of this group, but I think the wins most recently and the losses in the past all come together to remind the girls that this is a continuous process. A win or loss throughout season shows you where you are, how far you’ve come and, hopefully, an idea of where you want to be.

– Your father Chris—Stanford water polo player, silver medalist with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team, and water polo commentator for Pac12 Network—must be thrilled to see his daughter’s noteworthy success in the sport he loves.

My father has had an incredible impact on my life as a water polo player. I would say that the way I coach now is a perfect mix of the “old-school creative” side of water polo Dad taught me while I was growing up and the fundamentally strong and structured organization I learned at UCLA.

It was always fun for me and my sisters (Emily, Stanford class of 2015; Lindsay, Cal class of 2012) when the three of us were all in college at the same time, because Dad was still broadcasting pretty regularly for our big conference games. Even though he was all dressed up and camera ready, he would always sneak away and give us big hugs and pep talks. I can only remember a few times when he was on air where he went on (attempted) unbiased tangents about us as players and the screen would pan back to him and his partner, both of whom were tight-lipped smiling. Those [moments] were the best!

While I was in college, he told me after every weekend how much he loved watching me play and now, after every weekend he tells me how much he loves watching me coach. He answers the phone when I call and says: “Coach” (at which point I yell: “Call me Becca!”).

It’s such a funny role reversal we’ve had the last few years!

– What will you do to get your players ready for the CWPA tournament?

The next two weeks should be an amazing time for the girls. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking to know that everything you’ve worked for is coming to a close, but it should also be among the most fun and rewarding times too.

There will be lots of fundamental things we go over, but also a lot of scrimmaging. My dad always said that there was no better way to get better at water polo than to just play – and that’s what I plan to do.

– As a rookie coach, where do you get advice about how best to prepare them?

I’ve never wanted the girls to lose out on something because I am a rookie head coach. From the very beginning I told Luis Nicolao that I was going to be calling with questions to make sure we did what was best for the girls. Derek Ellingson has been an incredible life line as well. Every game, the two of us talk through everything.

His experience over the years with Princeton has undoubtedly helped make this transition as easy as it’s been. Between Luis and Derek, and the insight that they have about what makes Princeton Water Polo what it is, I’ve been extremely well-supported.

4 comments

  1. Swim Giggles LLC

    LOVE reading these sort of dark horse stories. Go Tigers! 👍💪

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Hi:

      It’s a GREAT story, and not really that surprising when you look at the roster Coach Nicolao left for his former assistant. What WAS surprising is the Tiger’s fantastic win over Michigan last month. That got EVERYONE’S attention (including mine).

      Your correspondent

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Hi Thomas:

      Yes, congratulations ARE in order for the Tigers. BUT, their eyes are on a bigger prize – and NCAA berth (which would TRULY be something worth celebrating!).

      We’ll see what the CWPA tournament brings.

      Your correspondent