Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Princeton Women's Water Polo On ESPNU

TigerBlog is going to mention this a bunch of times between now and the end of next week: The men's basketball game against Harvard on March 3 is a 5 p.m. tip-off, not a 5:30 one.

Again, that's 5. Your ticket probably says 5:30. It's actually 5.

Don't worry. TB will mention it again.

The basketball game is actually the back end of an ESPNU doubleheader that begins at 3 with the men's lacrosse game on Sherrerd Field against Johns Hopkins. This isn't the first time that there's been back-to-back Princeton events on ESPNU.

There are actually three ESPNU events in less than a week, including the women's water polo match against Harvard Saturday at 10:30. That would be one of only two home events this year for the women's water polo team, who also hosts George Washington on April 14.

The day of the basketball doubleheader will be the 52nd anniversary of the last time something happened on this campus, before the women's water polo game against Harvard. This is an easy one. TigerBlog isn't even going to give you a few paragraphs to think about it.

Back on March 3, 1965, Princeton defeated Penn 81-71 in its men's basketball regular-season finale at Dillon Gym. What was so significant about that game that it hasn't been repeated until now?

Yes, that was the last game in which a Princeton athlete who had already won an Olympic gold medal competed on this campus as a Tiger. In that case, it was Bill Bradley.

This time it's Ashleigh Johnson. It's easy to overdo the whole "returning gold medal" thing, but Johnson is one of the most special athletes Princeton has ever produced. With only two more chances to see her play on the Princeton campus, DeNunzio Pool should be jammed for both.

Bradley and Johnson are the only two Princeton athletes who have ever returned to compete for Princeton after winning Olympic gold. That's pretty impressive. 

When it came time to make the ESPNU schedule for the year, TigerBlog was going to be pretty insistent on trying to get a women's water polo game to be included. As it turned out, he didn't have to be. ESPN wanted to showcase Johnson as well.

The intimidation factor of having to play against Johnson must be fairly high. Here you are, playing in college, and the goalie for the other team is an Olympic gold medalist and the two-time world Player of the Year for the sport.

She's allowed 13 goals so far this year, while making 41 saves. TB is pretty sure that after each of those 13 goals, the scorer thought "I just scored on an Olympic gold medalist" and smiled.

Ashleigh Johnson is not the only one in her family on the Princeton team. Her sister Chelsea is the team's leading scorer, with 15 goals (on just 16 shots).

TigerBlog knows very little about water polo, other than he's a big fan of Luis Nicalao, the head coach. And he watched most of the U.S. games at the Olympics last summer, where it was impossible not to be struck with just how amazing a player Ashleigh Johnson is.

He's guessing a .759 save percentage and a .938 shooting percentage are pretty good.

There are 16 women's water polo players at Princeton. Of that group, 12 are from California, which is the epicenter of the sport in this country. Ashleigh, and her sister obviously, are Florida natives, and there is one other Floridian (freshman goalie Kasey Bersh) and one from New Zealand (Charlotte Valentine).

While it has to be intimidating to play against Johnson, she has to be just about the perfect teammate.

TigerBlog has met her a few times, but he hardly knows her well. Still, it's not hard to figure some things out quickly about her.

First, she's taller than you think. Second, she is one ripped muscle on top of another.

Beyond that, she is definitely humble and soft-spoken, and it's easy to tell from being around her that she really values the Princeton part of her athletic experience.

It's a great opportunity for Ashleigh Johnson and for Princeton women's water polo to be at home, and on national TV. TigerBlog has to thank his colleagues at ESPN for being open to showing water polo, which the network seems to love.

Princeton will be away from DeNunzio after its game Saturday until the George Washington match on March 3, playing in such varied locations as Cambridge (including a Harvard rematch), Lewisburg (at Harvard), Oneonta (in upstate New York) and out to California.

So it's Princeton-Harvard women's water polo at 10:30 Saturday on ESPNU. And then the following Friday, it's Princeton-Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse at 3, followed by Princeton-Harvard men's basketball at 5.

Not 5:30.

Say it with TigerBlog - 5, not 5:30.

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