The men’s water polo team took the pool against a familiar foe at the Naval Academy Sunday, squaring off with Ivy League rival Princeton in the teams’ second meeting of the year. But when the final whistle blew with the scoreboard showing a 7-6 Bruno win, the Bears had achieved something far from ordinary. The squad conquered the No. 8 Tigers in the Collegiate Water Polo Association Eastern Championship game for its first league title in 29 years and earned a birth in the NCAA national tournament.
No. 11 Bruno (27-6, 11-1 CWPA) moves on to face the best teams of the west coast as one of the top six squads in the NCAA tournament. Two wins, first in a play-in game and then in the NCAA semifinals, would earn Bruno a shot at the national title, where the Bears would be the first non-California team ever to compete in the championship match.
Princeton (23-4, 7-1) overcame an early deficit to tie the title match at five entering the fourth quarter. Henry Fox ’15, Bruno’s leading scorer and tournament MVP, netted the final of his three goals in the game to give his team a brief lead. But the Tigers once again answered to knot the score.
With just over two minutes remaining, Will Klein ’16 used an assist from Matty Gallas ’16 to score and vault the Bears above for good.
“It has definitely been an absolute thrill,” Fox said. “With this being senior year and every game potentially being our last, it has been a thrill to go out there every game with such an amazing team.”
Head Coach Felix Mercado called a timeout with 2:44 remaining to draw up the go-ahead play, and 24 seconds later, Klein found the back of the net. Klein — who entered the tournament averaging 1.3 goals per game and converting 64 percent of his shots — had only one goal on five attempts in the Bears first two games. But he turned his sluggish weekend around with the game-winning tally.
“Matty Gallas came down at wing, and he drew their defender expertly to him,” Klein said, describing the play. “That really opened things up for me. When I saw that crucial opportunity I knew I had to take advantage.”
History was against the Bears as they searched for their first title since 1985 against a Princeton team that had already beaten them once this year — a 9-7 decision in the Ivy championship game Oct. 19. But it was clear Bruno had put the defeat in the rearview mirror when it sprinted to a 4-1 lead early in the second quarter.
“We knew we would have to play lockdown defense against Princeton,” Fox said. “I thought we did that well. We played 32 minutes of team-oriented, defensive water polo.”
Princeton shot itself in the foot with penalties in the first quarter, setting up Fox with two penalty shots that the senior captain converted. Fox’s goals were sandwiched between tallies from upperclassmen leaders Nick Deaver ’15 and Gallas. Bruno’s offense peppered the Princeton net all day, forcing Tiger goaltender Vojislav Mitrovic to make 15 saves while Bruno’s goalie Luke Weiser ’17 allowed fewer goals on just eight saves.
“Our whole team came out with so much energy and focus from the starting whistle,” Fox said. “We did a good job of leaving our hearts in the pool and playing for each other.”
But the Tigers scored four of the game’s next five goals to equalize the score before the end of the third. Drew Hoffenberg led the Tigers’ offense all year and scored within the streak to force Bruno’s late heroics.
Brown steamrolled George Washington University (13-15, 1-7) by a score of 22-11 and outlasted St. Francis (16-12, 10-2) by a score of 10-7 to earn a spot in Sunday’s title game. The weekend continues a strong streak of neutral-site wins for the Bears, who are 12-0 in such games this season and have lost only one game away from home in 2014.
Bruno will continue its incredible run with an NCAA tournament play-in game Saturday against the University of California at San Diego (15-9, 6-0 WWPA), who won the Western Water Polo Association Sunday with a 17-6 victory over Loyola Marymount (9-18, 3-3 WWPA).
“We’ve stressed playing as a team and keeping the solidarity throughout the season,” Klein said. “None of that will change. We’re going into California ecstatic to be where we are and looking to make the final four.”