Tuesday, December 8, 2009

For the Good of the Sport

It was a surreal image. Watching Princeton play USC and UCLA face Loyola Marymount in the NCAA Water Polo Semifinals at DeNunzio Pool and then looking beyond the pool deck through the windows to the outside where the first snowfall of the season was blanketing the ground and the trees surrounding the pool.

Water polo is a sport centered on the West Coast in California where the teams play outdoors. No team that doesn’t call California home has ever won a national title in water polo and only five times since 1969 has the national champion been crowned in another state. But for three days last weekend, the center of the collegiate water polo world was Princeton, New Jersey, even though three of the competing teams all were from towns within miles of each other in Los Angeles.

One of USC player's admitted concern entering the weekend about the unknowns of actually playing indoors and worried if there would be problems communicated in the noisy environment.

It was a great event by all accounts and thanks and congratulations go out to all the Princeton staff members that put in their time and effort to making the event special.

An overriding theme that struck TigerBlog throughout the weekend felt from all four teams, committee members and others connected to the water polo world was the sport’s awareness of itself, where it fits in to the college sports landscape, and what it needs to do to gain more awareness and grow. Ultimately, that is one of the main reasons why the NCAA committee awarded Princeton the opportunity to host this event several years ago.

This was touched upon throughout the weekend from the championship banquet held on Friday night to USC’s post-game press conference following Sunday’s championship game. The coaches, players, media and fans kept pointing to the importance of the weekend in representing and growing the sport. Sure, it may have been the coaches and student-athletes saying the right things, but it was a theme that kept coming up and seemed very sincere.

Any championship event is the pinnacle of its sport. In water polo, there are the Olympics and then the NCAA Championships. As Princeton’s Mike Merlone mentioned following the team’s win in Sunday’s third-place game, “the NCAA final four is the goal of every age-group, club and high school water polo player in the country.” By bringing this event to the east coast, a new set of eyes was able to see it, and that was an important aspect that was not lost on anyone.

In addition to simply bringing the sport to more people, part of the ‘for the good of the game’ also centered on the importance of the east coast teams to the sport. Of the 41 teams that play men’s water polo, 17 are on the east coast. Obviously the top teams in the sport play on the west coast, but the success Princeton had this weekend and the inroads that Navy and St. Francis have also made in recent years have shown that the east coast teams are getting stronger and showing that they belong.

Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao said just that on Sunday after his team’s win. “We talked about showing that we belong out here and can play with these teams. I think we did just that by beating a very good Loyola Marymount team and getting our program’s first-ever NCAA game.”

That point was not lost on anybody. When asked about it in the championship press conference, USC’s Jordan Thompson, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, summed it up by saying, “Princeton is a good team. We prepared for them yesterday the exact same way we prepared for UCLA in the championship game, and every other game this season.”

TigerBlog would say that is belonging.


Anonymous said...

TB: Another excellent post. I really appreciate the breadth of coverage on this site and this blog. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this, Princeton's fourth NCAA appearance in the fall, showcasing great coaches and student athletes in a sport Princeton has not been traditionally known for.

Tiger '63 said...

TB: I echo the sentiments above about your excellent post and your overall sports' coverage. Your blog provides interesting info that we cannot pick up merely by reading accounts of the games. I'm hoping that Princeton's terrific 3rd place showing in the NCAA's will help to encourage water polo athletes from California to attend Eastern colleges - especially Princeton! Kudos to Coach Nicolao and his fine Tiger athletes!