CAMBRIDGE, MA. The inaugural contest between champions from the newly formed Northeast Water Polo Conference and the new Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference provided a compelling climax to a year unlike any other in East Coast water polo history. Host Harvard — representing the NWPC — knocked off MAWPC champs Bucknell 13-12 in sudden-death overtime. With the win, the Crimson (26-6) advance in their first ever NCAA tournament, where this Thursday they will face the University of California-Davis at the University of California’s Spieker Aquatics Center for the right to play top-seed University of Southern California in the 2016 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Final Four.
Two minutes into sudden death, Harvard junior captain Harry Tafur got behind the Bucknell defense and fought off a trailing defender to beat Bison goalie Charlie Niehaus with a twisting shot at 2M, setting off a raucous celebration on the Blodgett Pool deck.
After a nail-biting finish Harvard head coach Ted Minnis praised his team for responding in its biggest match in program history.
“We wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a fluke that we won our championship,” he said. “It was a great team effort. My guys made some mistakes and then came back and made up for them.”
The match — a play-in for an NCAA play-in spot that resulted from the Collegiate Water Polo Association splitting itself in half last April — featured exceptional individual performances on both sides of the ball, but none more impressive than that delivered by Crimson goalie Anthony Ridgley. With 13 saves, including three huge ones in the second period that prevented Bucknell (23-5) from expanding an early 4-1 lead, the sophomore from Los Angeles repeatedly came up big against an offensive-minded Bison squad led by fantastic freshman Rade Joksimovic.
Minnis acknowledged his netminder’s impressive performance.
“Anthony Ridgley has played in big games his whole life.” he said. “He’s a gamer. You just know that he’s going to show up.”
And show up Ridgley did, though the Crimson goalie was amply supported by key contributions from seniors Dan Stevens and Joey Colton. Stevens led his team with three goals, while Colton contributed two scores and — with time running out in the second overtime period — a key assist on the goal that enabled Harvard to tie the match at 12, leading to sudden-death.
Coach Minnis, now in his sixth season in Cambridge, analyzed the play that happened with 55 seconds left in the Crimson season and his team desperate for an equalizer.
“We talked about in our time outs how [the Bison] were just jumping to Noah [Harrison] and Joey,” he explained. “We ran the same play earlier for Joey. He got a good shot off but shot it high.
“[W]e came back and ran it again but with Noah and luckily he got the foul off the double team and went to Joey. [Bucknell] helped off of Joey and when they all rushed him it was Austin [Sechrest] wide open on the post and he put it away.”
The freshman attacker’s second goal set the stage for a thrilling overtime finish, overshadowing a phenomenal performance by Joksimovic (6 goals), who more than lived up to his billing as the East’s best.
The first player in East Coast water polo history to win both Player and Rookie of The Year in the same season, Joksimovic (154 goals, 184 points on the season) delivered half of his team’s goals, none bigger than a seven-meter rocket off a long rebound with 16 seconds left in the match to tie it at 10. The equalizer came immediately after Ridgley had stopped but couldn’t coral a previous Joksimovic blast, and it left the Crimson faithful —jubilant earlier in the period when their team broke out to a 10-6 lead — despairing that it would again be “wait until next year” for a program that has rarely tasted success.
In a season of firsts for East Coast polo, it’s fitting that Harvard — consistently an also-ran for top honors on this coast — would find its way to the top of the Eastern heap. The transformation is due to Minnis, the 2016 Dick Russell Coach of last week’s NWPC tournament, who has built Harvard into a dominant power by successfully mining the California talent lode. All the seniors on the squad —Colton, Harrison, Stevens and Viktor Wrobel — scored in this penultimate match, and no matter how they do against #9 UC-Davis, this group will graduate as the most successful in program history, compiling a 87-40 record, securing #10 Harvard’s first ever conference title and the program’s inaugural trip to NCAAs.
“This class has learned so much going through this run to get to this point — from freshman, to sophomore to junior year,” Minnis said. “They’ve played in a lot of big games and they know how to be leaders in the pool.
Then, in a comment that just a few years ago would not be considered a compliment, he added: “They know how to play Harvard water polo.”
Goals: Stevens (3), Colton (2), Sechrest (2), Bunn, Harrison, Judge, Owens, Tafur, Wrobel
Saves: Ridgley (13 svs, 12 ga., 39:53 min.)
Goals: Joksimovic (6), Djordjevic (4), Daley, Hunter
Saves: Niehaus (11 svs., 13 ga., 39:53 min.)