No. 14 Harvard men’s water polo finished off an impressive regular season and headed to the Northeast Water Polo Conference title match with a number of key wins under its belt, including victories over No. 20 Wagner, No. 18 George Washington, No. 18 Loyola Marymount, No. 7 UC Davis, and No. 3 Cal.
The biggest two wins of the year, though, came against Ivy rival No. 12 Princeton. The Crimson pulled off a 13-12 nail-biter in overtime in the Garden State and then topped the Tigers again back home in Blodgett Pool by a score of 9-8.
So it was all the more heartbreaking when, after skirting past Brown, 11-10, Harvard fell to Princeton in the NEWPC championship, 12-10, at the Katherine Moran Coleman Aquatics Center at Brown University.
The Tigers finished 19-10 overall on the season. The Crimson posted a better record of 22-8 to complete its fifth consecutive season with 20 wins or more.
It was a winnable game from the beginning.
In the first quarter, Harvard’s leaned on a staunch defense as its attack struggled to get going. The score was knotted at one apiece after the opening stanza.
Sophomore attacker Dennis Blyashov scored halfway through the second quarter to put the Crimson ahead 2-1.
Then Princeton kicked into gear. Sophomore attacker Miles Cole put away two quick goals to take the lead, and after senior attacker Nathan Ondracek tied the score at 3-3, the Tigers went up for good with one second left in the half, 4-3. Harvard never claimed the lead again.
Princeton stretched its lead to as wide as four goals, but the Crimson hung around, pressing until the end. Ondracek scored two more, and Blyashov added three more.
In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. Harvard scored with a minute left in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to two goals, and that was it.
“We had more than enough firepower on our team to put them down,” said Ondracek. “We just made some mistakes, and they capitalized on them.”
Junior attacker Charlie Owens felt the same way.
“The previous two years, we didn’t win the regular season in our conference, and we kind of went into the tournament with an underdog attitude and did really well in the championship tournament,” Owens said. “Then this year, we did really well in the regular season and won that title, and then we just, you know, folded in the championship game, which was obviously disappointing.”
There was still a lot to be proud of for the Crimson. The senior class finished as the winningest in program history, and current players are bullish on the team’s prospects next year.
Ondracek highlighted team chemistry as an essential ingredient to his class’s sustained success.
“It was awesome,” Ondracek said. “The fact that we won so much is a huge accomplishment, and we’re all proud of it. Our class is really close, and that contributed a lot to why we did so well, both in and out of the pool.”
Owens pointed out that the team’s rookies are poised to make strides next season.
“We’re definitely moving up,” Owens said. “We have a really good class of freshmen coming in next year, and our freshmen this year were some of the top guys on our team. It’s going to be a big year.”
Ondracek reflected on the team’s future in a similar light.
“It’s both good and bad,” Ondracek said. “Only bad because, like, I’m graduating, and I won’t be here for it. I think our team is always getting better, a lot better, from here. The younger guys especially, the freshmen and sophomores, have so much potential. They’re going to be amazing, and it’s going to be really cool to see what they do. I really believe this next set of players—the freshmen, the sophomores, the incoming guys—is going to continue our success.”
The underclassmen may be able to wash the taste of that championship out of their mouths. In the end, it was just a tough one.
“Shots just weren’t going in,” said Owens. “We just didn’t have our day.”