UCLA Dominates Host Tigers at 2018 Princeton Water Polo Invitational

Freshman Danny Roland defending UCLA net from a bevy of Tigers. Photo Courtesy: Nicole Maloney

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

PRINCETON, NJ. The annual Princeton Invitational is one of the high points of the men’s NCAA varsity water polo season in the East, as teams from out West travel cross country to test the mettle of their Eastern counterparts. The 2018 version included an impressive line-up of 15 squads, including the host Tigers, playing 28 games over a long weekend in early September.

The programs at this year’s tournament represent a cornucopia of teams sprinkled throughout the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s varsity men’s poll: #2 UCLA, #4 Stanford, #9 Harvard, #13 Princeton, #16 Cal Baptist, #17 Brown, #18 George Washington, Air Force, Fordham, Iona, Johns Hopkins, Navy, Santa Clara, St. Francis Brooklyn and Wagner.

East vs. West match-ups have been going on for decades, though typically it’s Eastern teams that travel. A key proponent of having the country’s best teams leave their California homes is UCLA Head Coach Adam Wright, whose Bruins have been stapes at this tournament the past three years.

“We need to come here,” Wright said Sunday morning after his team defeated Brown by 16-9. “What all these Eastern teams are doing for our sport is crucial. Without them we don’t have polo.

“The reality is, we get benefits from coming here,” he added. “We get exposure, we get an opportunity to play a great amount of games in different situations—which helps us grow as a team.”

There are always a number of compelling match-ups throughout the weekend, but the signature contest was the ESPN-televised game between the UCLA Bruins (8-0) and the Tigers (6-2)—typically the two strongest teams from either coast. This year, the Bruins held up their end of the bargain, pinning a decisive 17-5 loss on their hosts and affirming that Wright’s latest roster is indeed worthy to defend the Bruins’ 2017 NCAA title.

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Good for the Bruin faithful that Nicolas Savelijc is back. Photo Courtesy: Nicole Maloney

Despite losing Matt Framer, Jack Grover, Max Irving and Alex Roelse—contributors to Bruin championships in 2014, 2015 and 2017 who graduated last spring—UCLA remains remarkably deep. Starting with sophomore Nicolas Savelijc, who last year was named 2nd team All-American on the strength of a team-leading 45 goals, and junior goalie Alex Wolf, arguably the best collegiate goalie in the country, the Bruins have skill on both sides of the ball, befitting their status as favorites to repeat as NCAA titlists.

But there’s more to this team than just a shooter and goalie. Savelijc (4 goals) scored at will against Princeton, but sophomore center Quinten Osborne also had his way with the Princeton defense, muscling his way to three goals, while freshman Ash Molthen contributed two scores and looks like a very promising addition to Wright’s lineup. Wolf did not play, but he wasn’t needed. Freshman Danny Roland stood tall in the Bruin cage behind an offense that went up 9-4 in the first half and then broke the match open with a 5-goal run in the third period.

Sophomore Chase Travisano only scored once, but—after delivering 26 goals last year, the lefty will be counted on to provide weak-side scoring. A key recruit for Wright didn’t even hit the water this weekend; Jake Cavano, a freshman from Huntington Beach, was a member of the U.S. squad that went to the 2017 FINA Men’s Junior World Championships.

The Bruins are young; losing seven players from the 2017 champs meant that Wright needed to restock, and he has; his extended roster includes 12 true freshmen. As always, the veteran coach deflected talk about his teams prospects in 2018, explaining why a big roster this year is essential to preparing his team for NCAA title battles to come in December and beyond.

“The reality is, we know that in the 25 to 28 [player] range, we have the opportunity to have a group that’s maybe red-shirting—but the way we’re using them in a training they’re developing so they’ll be ready to go in the following season,” Wright said. “A lot of them are getting more reps than the kids who are playing in a given season.”

It’s this ability to plan for both now and beyond that underscores why UCLA has experience so much success under Wright, including an NCAA record 57-match winning streak over the 2015-16 seasons.

“Our main focus is the present but we always have to be considering the future,” he added. “If we’re trying to create sustained success than each player needs to be building each year. All 29 bodies are moving at all times in our training.”

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Freshman Bill Motherway hopes to replace a legend. Photo Courtesy: Nicole Maloney

Princeton is also substantially different from the last time these two teams met, and the changes were apparent in Sunday’s match. The biggest change is at the top: Dusty Litvak—who this time last year was on the opposite end of the De Nunzio pool deck as Wright’s assistant—is now the Tigers’ head coach, taking over for Luis Nicolao, who left for Navy after two decades at Princeton.

The roster Litvak inherited lost two major contributors from the squad that pushed UCLA around in a very competitive 14-8 loss last September. Vojislav Mitrovic, who ended his four year career as Princeton’s all-times saves leader, and Jordan Colina, who torched the Bruins for a career-high six goals, part of a career total of 226 goals, have both graduated.

Missing from the Tiger line-up yesterday was star center Sean Duncan (67 goals in 2017) who is out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury. Matt Payne (1 goal), Michael Swart and Ryan Wilson are all back for their senior years; freshman Keller Maloney (1 goal), a 2018 USA Water Polo 18U All-American, looks promising after a very strong weekend.

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A pair of promising freshmen: Princeton’s Keller Maloney and UCLA’s Ash Molthen. Photo Courtesy: Nicole Maloney

Replacing Mitrovic is an unenviable task, and Litvak has two candidates for the job: senior Ryan Melosini, who was Mitrovic’s back-up the past three years, and freshman Billy Motherway, a big-time recruit from Mater Dei High School in Orange County.

“Princeton was a wonderful academic opportunity and also a chance to play Division I ball at a high level—those were some of our major reasons,” said Julia Motherway, Billy’s mother, on Friday. “Billy’s father, who has passed away, also graduated from Princeton, so it was a nice way to feel close to his dad.”

Another important Mater Dei recruit—now one of four Monarchs on the squad, including Motherway, Duncan and Payne—is Wyatt Benson, a freshman center who is getting a lot of minutes due to Duncan’s injury.

Neither were able to hold back the Bruins, but the real test for Litvak and his team is not how they do against the country’s best; it’s how they fare facing Brown, Harvard, Iona, MIT and St. Francis in Northeast Water Polo Conference play starting at home on September 29 when the Engineers come to town.

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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