A View from the East: An Eventful 2016 Season (So Far)

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BROOKLYN, N.Y. Thanks to a change instituted in April, men’s water polo in the East this season has been anything but typical. Hoping to gain an additional spot in the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament, the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) — containing almost half of all varsity programs —split itself in two. But displacing member schools Fordham University and Princeton University and changing its championship format, which for decades had determined an automatic NCAA qualifier, may not yield an additional tournament berth. In fact, it could leave the East on the outside looking in at the NCAA party.

The next two weekends will determine if the CWPA is rewarded for its gambit. By Sunday, two champions from the East will be crowned: one at the new Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) tournament hosted by Princeton; the other from the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC) championship at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. But it will be up to the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Committee to decide who gets the two at-large spots in the 2016 bracket and where the seven competing schools (five automatics, two at-large compete) come from.

Given the criteria — records, ranking, strength of schedule — the committee’s November 20th announcement could contain the same news as in years past: a lone representative from our coast in NCAAs or even no Eastern teams at the NCAA Final Four

No matter the result, 2016 has been a year like no other. Starting with the Princeton Invitational in early September — dominated by Western powerhouses UCLA and Cal Berkley — to the Harvard Invitational in early October, where the host Crimson sparred with Brown, Bucknell and Princeton to lay claim to being the East’s best, to the remarkable success of Wagner’s neophyte program, with eight wins in its first year in existence, to Rade Joksimovic, Bucknell’s superb freshman — the MAWPC’s Player and Rookie of the Year — this has truly been a season to remember.

“West Crushes East” is an early — and familiar — storyline
The Princeton Invitational, now in it’s 19th year, is the East Coast’s premiere water polo tournament, and the 2016 version — with 16 teams playing 30 matches over four days in early September — was particularly noteworthy due to appearances by California and by UCLA, the two-time reigning national champions.

UCLA’s appearance was indeed a rare; the Bruins were last East for the 2009 NCAA tournament, also at Princeton. The Invitational proved to be more an early season warm-up than a serious test for head coach Adam Wright’s deep squad. Garrett Danner, the Bruins’ Cutino Award-winning goalie, and Gordon Marshall, an All-American at whole set the past two years, didn’t make the trip. Not that they were needed; the Bruins were never challenged in outscoring perennial Eastern powers #10 Brown, Johns Hopkins, #12 (T) Princeton and #20 St. Francis Brooklyn by a total of 71-24.

Cal, which last came here in 2012, was even more dominant, beating #18 George Washington University, Princeton, Johns Hopkins and St. Francis by a combined score of 66-14. Having two of the nation’s top teams open their season on this coast must be viewed in light of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s recent split. With only four teams left after mass defections to the Golden Coast Conference, Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA — which have invited DIII Penn State Behrend (0-23) to the MPSF in an attempt to retain the conference’s automatic NCAA berth — might be desperate to fill out their schedules, no matter how inferior the competition.

On the Princeton pool deck Coach Wright affirmed the vibrancy of East Coast polo, which this season added two varsity programs, at Wagner and also at LaSalle.

[The East is] expanding the sport,” he said. “They’re doing it at a higher rate than we are on the West Coast. For us that’s vital. If we get two, three, four, five programs then we can push for an eight-team tournament. It can’t just be because we split up and made new conferences. It’s got to be the addition of new programs. And the East Coast has been fantastic about that.

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“That’s a real positive and that’s why we always have to keep in mind that there’s an access way for the East,” Wright added.

NWPC and MAWPC: A New Beginning
The two new conferences began play at the end of September, marking a significant first. Princeton — which had spent two decades in the CWPA’s Southern Division — and St. Francis had faced each other numerous times in CWPA tournament play. In the inaugural NWPC match in Princeton the host Tigers prevailed over the visiting Terriers by 9-8. Another first occurred one month later, as Princeton won in its first visit to St. Francis’s shallow/deep pool three stories under the New York City streets, chalking up a 10-8 victory.

The, young Terriers (12-12; 5-5 NWPC) endured a season of growing pains; second-year head coach Igor Zagoruiko has nine new players, including seven freshmen. Key to the St. Francis season was two tough losses to Brown (21-7; 8-2 NWPC). In a thrilling match in Brooklyn Heights on October 2nd the Terriers twice held three goal leads, but simply could not close out the visitors, losing 11-10 in sudden-death overtime. In five NWPC losses — two to Brown, two to Princeton and one to Harvard — St. Francis was outscored by a total of seven goals.

In aligning with Brown, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and St. Francis in the NWPC, Iona ended a decades-long conference rivalry with Fordham, which elected to join the MAWPC. But the rivalry wasn’t completely severed; the two teams will continue to meet in the Judge Cup, which since 2012 has been awarded annually to the winner of the Iona-Fordham match.

Named for Dr. Francis Xavier Judge, a giant of Eastern water polo whose sons and grandsons have populated Ram and Gael rosters, this year’s match, on October 26th, was a one-sided affair. Host Fordham won 10-3, but good feelings abounded throughout as Patrick Judge — “Doc” Judge’s grandson — proudly carried on his family’s tradition by playing for Iona.

“It’s always something I wanted to do so it makes me happy to play for a team that my family has done so much for and had so much given to them,” he said.

The Harvard Invitational: Harbinger of things to come?
At the first-ever Harvard Invitational, ten teams — including Dartmouth, Iona, MIT, the University of Toronto, and a New York Athletic Club team featuring Olympians John Mann and Alex Obert — featured Brown, #12 (T) Bucknell, #11 Harvard and Princeton in a series of matches that might presage who will be the East’s best. In a thrilling back and forth affair, Bucknell, behind a hat trick by Joksimovic, knocked off Princeton 8-7. The following day, the host Crimson beat the Bison 13-11, demonstrating that their upperclassmen-laden roster might be the East’s deepest.

During that weekend Harvard head coach Ted Minnis discussed why the East deserves inclusion in the NCAA tournament picture.

“We understand that you have the Big Four [UCLA, USC, Cal, Stanford] and the MPSF,” he said. “And yes, they’re going to beat us by numbers. But the thing is they win their conference championship, that’s a big deal. They get in and play a national championship game with their top two teams, that’s great, right? But why shouldn’t everyone else have an opportunity to get in and do those kinds of things?”

The NWPC was won by Brown with Princeton (17-8, 8-2 NWPC) a close second, by virtue of worse goal differential versus third place Harvard (22-6; 7-3 NWPC). Both the Bears and Tigers are favorites to win the new conference title; Brown placed first the past two years, while Princeton perennially won the Southern Division in the CWPA’s former alignment. But Harvard, which has never qualified for an NCAA tournament berth, is ripe for the East’s top spot.

Bucknell, George Washington, Wagner and Mid-Atlantic Polo
Wagner, which along with George Washington has been the East’s most surprising team, was also at the Harvard Invitational, where head coach Chris Radmonovich’s team demonstrated its resilience.  Crushed by host Harvard 17-11 early in the tournament, the Seahawks spotting Iona an early three-goal lead then virtually shut down the Gael offense, winning 6-5 in the first-ever match between the two teams. It gave the Seahawks wins over local rivals Fordham, Iona and St. Francis — a first for New York City-based programs.

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That Wagner ended the regular season with eight regular season wins and a 3-7 record in conference play, good for fifth place behind Bucknell (20-4; 9-1 MAWPC) George Washington, Johns Hopkins (4-17; 4-6 MAWPC),  Fordham (14-12; 4-6 MAWPC) and — shockingly — ahead of Navy (7-16; 2-8 MAWPC) is nothing short of miraculous. With a roster of three experienced players and 14 true freshmen, Radmonovich’s team is poised to upset the Eastern hierarchy.

“The best part of this whole thing is all these kids are going to be back next year,” he said. “We don’t have to start over at all and we don’t have [a situation] where we lose seniors and have to fill those places.

“This team gets to grow this year and to come back and do it again next year,” Radmonovich added.

George Washington (13-10) reversed years of losing with a revamped line-up that resulted in a stellar 8-2 mark in MAWPC play. Leading the way for head coach Adam Foley’s squad is Bogdan Petkovic with 46 goals and 40 assists.

To advance to it’s first-ever NCAA tournament, the Colonials will likely have to get past Bucknell and Rade Joksimovic, the Bisons’ super freshman, who scored 124 goals and chipped in 27 assists in leading the Bison to their first 20-win campaign since 2007. He also made East Coast water polo history in becoming the first men’s athlete to earn both Player and Rookie of the Year honors on the same ballot.

Tournament berths are now at the whim of the NCAA
Despite the CWPA’s best efforts to ensure an additional NCAA spot for its members, there’s now less guarantee that a team outside of California will make the tournament. In years past, the winner of the CWPA championship was automatically awarded a spot in the NCAA tournament, including a Final Four berth prior to a 2012 expansion of the NCAA Championship, which added two play-in games to make the Final Four.

Now, neither the NWPC nor the MAWPC is guaranteed one of the play-in game spots.

Ed Haas, the CWPA’s Director of Communications, called a yet to be determined match between the two conference winners a “pig-tail”; that is a play-in to a play-in. Haas speculates that the NCAA would likely pit the two East Coast winners against each other to save money, as all of the competing schools are within the same geographical region.

With a smaller format — the NWPC championship has six participants, the MAWPC eight—any team has a punchers chance of winning, as less games means that a hot goalie can be the difference for a lower-seeded team. So all the success that conference leaders Brown and Bucknell have achieved could be for naught if they fail to capture a conference title. And the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Committee might not look so favorably on a lower or unranked team from the East — especially if there’s a higher-ranked program available from the West.

At the same time two East coast champions are being crowned, the polo community’s attention will likely be on Los Angeles, where the MPSF tournament is taking place in Westwood. #1USC, #2 UCLA, #3 Cal and #6 Stanfordas well as Penn State Behrend — will compete for the MPSF’s automatic NCAA berth. It’s reasonable to expect that MPSF regular season champs USC, which last weekend snapped the Bruins record 57-match win streak, has already qualified for NCAAs. But what happens with UCLA — especially if Cal wins the tournament?

It seems inconceivable that the NCAA will leave out the defending champions, especially if they have only two losses, meaning that three teams could deservedly come from the MPSF. Considering the Golden Coast Conference does not have an automatic bid for 2016, its possible — though unlikely — that one of the top MPSF teams is left on the sidelines.

Despite tremendous change and uncertainty in 2016, what’s clear is that the CWPA’s realignment, coupled with the success of new programs like Wagner, have made this a compelling season for Eastern water polo.