Changing of the Guard: Johns Hopkins, NCAA Contender

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After a 2015 campaign unlike any in program history — coming within a goal of being the first DIII program to represent the East in the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament — the Johns Hopkins University men’s water polo team opens a new season today against Harvard at the Bruno Classic in Providence, RI.  The Blue Jays’ unprecedented accomplishment last November, when they suffered a narrow 7-6 loss to Princeton University in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s (CWPA) Men’s Championship final, has raised hopes for  greater success in 2016.

To meet these expectations, Hopkins will need to overcome substantial challenges, including a move into a brand new conference and the reality that no team will underestimate the Blue Jays again.

Hopkins Draws Top Prospects’ Interest

Recruiting has benefited most from the team’s recent success. Even though Hopkins polo does not offer athletic scholarships, some of the country’s best high school water polo players knock persistently on head coach Ted Bresnahan’s door.

“We normally get what I call B+ to A- recruits – now we’re getting A+s,” he said recently by phone. “Kids who would normally look at schools at the scholarship level that are now looking at us because of our finish at Easterns.”

At least 12 top recruits —all qualified to play at the East’s best schools—have scheduled visits to Baltimore this fall. Bresnahan said that all have Johns Hopkins at the top of their lists.

The Blue Jays have become so popular that water polo moms — who knew there are such a thing? — regularly email the Hopkins coach, seeking consideration for their sons.

Other Varsity Program Take Notice

The water polo team’s success — the Blue Jays finished 2015 as the 12th ranked team in the country, the program’s highest-ever ranking — is unfamiliar at an athletics program known for men’s lacrosse.

In the 2016 CWPA Preseason Poll — voted on by a panel of water polo coaches selected from the major college programs in the country — Hopkins placed 16th, it’s highest rank so early in the season.

According to Ed Haas, for more than a decade the CWPA’s Director of Communications, this recognition is unprecedented: Haas couldn’t recall if the Blue Jays had ever previously placed in the preseason Top 20.

Even former Stanford head men’s coach Dante Dettamanti has joined the Hopkins’ bandwagon. Dettamanti, who from 1977 to 2001 led the Cardinal to eight NCAA championships, has been in email contact about the innovative motion offense Bresnahan installed upon being named head coach 25 years ago.

New Players = New Opportunities

The 2016 season brought substantial roster changes. Kevin Yee, a driving force in last year’s run to the Eastern finals, graduated in May. But he has remained on campus, hired by Bresnahan to be his assistant coach.

Also lost to graduation was Langdon Froomer, the Blue Jays’ top point scorer (118) and second-leading goal scorer (50) last season who garnered First Team All-American, CWPA All-South and All-CWPA Championship honors last year. The class of 2015 — Froomer, and Yee, along with goalie Erik Henrikson, driver Blake Range and center Garrett Davidson — complied the highest four-year win total (81) in school history.

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Bresnahan was able to pick their replacements from among the top high school recruits in the country.

Finn Banks, a talented lefty from California, was the Sacred Heart Prep Scholar-Athlete of the Year, while Andres White, a 6-1 utility player from Corona del Mar High School is: “Probably one of the better 2M guards in Southern California.” Bresnahan said. “He’s got the ability to start right away.”

Then there’s Carter Young, the 2015 Mr. Pennsylvania Water Polo from Reading. “I see him getting very good minutes as a freshman,” his new coach said.

An experienced group of returning players is headlined by junior goalie John Wilson, sensational in the 2015 CWPA tournament, and sophomore Giorgio Cico, who as a freshman led the Blue Jays in goals. (55). Cico was one of the East’s most decorated players, garnering recognition as Second Team All-American, First Team CWPA All-South, CWPA Southern Division Rookie of the Year and First Team All-CWPA Championship.

Wilson and Cico are important members of Hopkins’s core of three seniors, five juniors and five sophomores.

“Realistically I only lost two starters from a team that placed second in the East last year,” Bresnahan said.

A Direct Path to the Final Four

As a result of  last spring’s CWPA realignment, Hopkins will join the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-Eastern Region which include familiar opponents Navy, George Washington and Bucknell as well as New York City imports Fordham and Wagner, fielding a team for the first time.

Gone from conference play is nemesis Princeton, which joined the new Northeast Water Polo Conference (NEWPC). The Tigers have beaten the Blue Jays the past six meetings, including the memorable loss in the CWPA final, and own a 48-5 edge in meetings between the two programs.

Luis Nicolao, head men water polo coach at Princeton, has mixed feelings about dropping a familiar foe from the Tigers’ schedule.

“It hasn’t hit me yet, because we haven’t started this year, but our in-season schedule will be so different,” said Nicolao. “We’re still going to play Hopkins; we’re going to play every year and Bucknell every year and Navy every year. Those rivalries will not stop because we’re so close.”

If the Blue Jays are to be a legitimate threat to the top of East Coast water polo establishment, Wilson, Cico and the rest will have to negotiate a tough non-conference schedule, which includes University of the Pacific, UC San Diego, University of California, and UCLA, the two-time defending national champions.

Then there’s a busy conference schedule and year-end tournament — Mid-Atlantic and NEWPC champions will meet in a play-in game for NCAAs — which Bresnahan sees as a more direct path to the Final Four than in years past.

“Instead of going up against ever one in the East we only have to face have the teams and then there’s an automatic qualifier,” he said.

The question is: are the Blue Jays truly good enough to be in the mix for an NCAA berth? If they are able to consistently attract blue-chip prospects, the chances are excellent that Hopkins will join the ranks of the East’s best teams — and regularly contend for the Final Four.