In one of the seminal matches in Eastern water polo history, on November 13, 1977, Pittsburgh faced Bucknell at the Joseph C. Trees Pool for the Eastern Water Polo League Southern Division Championship. A rematch of the 1976 final, won 14-12 by Pitt, with less than a minute remaining the host Panthers held a two-goal lead and appeared headed to another NCAA men’s tournament as the East’s best team. But, in a memorable turn of events, the Bison rallied to force overtime, and won the game 21-20 on a shot by Mark Gensheimer in the first minute of sudden death.
Following is the third in a series of articles about the participants involved in one the more memorable polo matches in Eastern intercollegiate history. The first two were an interview with Scott Schulte, Jay Fisette’s teammate on the 1977 Bucknell squad, and a discussion with Jorge Machicote, a member of the opposing Pitt team.
It’s been more than four decades, and Jay Fisette has moved far afield from the setting for one of his life’s signature moments. He’s lived in Arlington, Virginia the past 37 years, gotten married and enjoyed different careers, including more than a decade as a member of his city’s political establishment.
But, one of his fondest memories remains the goal he scored 43 years ago against host Pitt in an NCAA qualifier, part of a remarkable finish that helped propel Bucknell’s water polo team to its first-ever NCAA men’s tournament. Remarking that it was something he’d never forget, Fisette—who has stayed active in aquatic competition as a polo player, referee and masters swimmer—said: “It’s the most exciting moment of your athletic career. It’s just not going to get any better than that.”
Recently, Fisette spoke with Total Waterpolo about his career as a swimmer and polo player, his role in helping the team achieve NCAA varsity status, a switch from playing for Bucknell to coaching at Pitt and the remarkable finish to the ELWP match in 1977, one that establish the Bison as the East’s best squad for years to come.
- You came to Bucknell as a swimmer, but it’s as a water polo player that you’re best remembered.
I was recruited by Dick Russell in 1974 from Peters Township High School near Pittsburgh. I was a high school All-American on our medley relay. I started at Bucknell in ’74, graduated in ’78. Water polo was something I had never done before, but Russell also coached polo and required new swim recruits to play it for a month. That’s an unusual thing these days. The coaches are split and they don’t allow you to do the other [sport].
I hadn’t heard of it but I showed up, was forced to do it and fell in love with it. I played water polo all four years at Bucknell, so ’77 was my senior year in the fall.
We were a club; the captains my freshman year were seniors like Roger Schwanhausser and Bill Drake—both about 6-6. It was all swimmers. There were a few who just swam but almost everyone who played water polo was a swimmer.
By the second year I was traveling with the group, but was not a starter. I was starting by the time I was a junior and senior. We were a club the first two years and won Easterns both years but couldn’t go on to nationals. My junior year we did not win Easterns—we lost to Pitt—we were a club.
But between my junior and senior years, two of us worked really hard to petition the Bucknell administration to become a varsity sport. And we did, prior to my senior year. It was in the spring of ’77 we were granted varsity status.
- In ’77 if you had won but were still a club program, you wouldn’t have gone to NCAAs.
Exactly. That’s the same thing that happened my freshman and sophomore years. All the guys that won Easterns never played at nationals. We weren’t a varsity sport.
The guy who helped me do that was Don Moll. I go back every one to two years for a reunion of all these guys at Bucknell. Mark Gensheimer I see more than that through the course of the year.
I was from the Pittsburgh area so in the off-season I was one of those Renegade players with Mike Graff, Russell Hertzberg, Gensheimer, and Mike Schofield. So it was a big deal that for my senior year we were varsity.
- In 1976 you had a string of success snapped by a Pitt team bolstered by the arrival of talented players from Puerto Rico.
No question. Most of the starters on that team were from Puerto Rico. Barry Ford was one of the exceptions. The goalie—Steve Feller—was an exception. Mike Schofield wasn’t Puerto Rican. But most of the guys on the team were from Puerto Rico. They had a different style. Bucknell’s style was more play to the hole man. And of course the rules changed—they changed even over my four years. From having five fouls and you’re kicked out, to having 10 fouls and a penalty throw. There were different rules during those four years.[On The Record with Mike Schofield, Legendary Navy Water Polo Coach Turned Referee]
Basically the hole man was the center, and everything revolved around them. At different points there would be quick easy fouls and then the play was putting the ball back in play to get quick, easy goals. Or pulling people, getting them fouled out. We played that, to the hole man.
They played more individually, but they were really talented individuals.
- Who was your two-meter man?
Junior and senior year, I played that position. Rick Renner, the guy who was co-captain my senior year, we worked really well together. I’d get the ball, I’d get a foul, he’d pop up—I knew where his hand was gonna be and he’d get a quick goal.
He was the high scorer, I was the high assists. I might have been third or fourth in goals. But I was always high in assists, because that’s the position I played. By senior year, Scott Schulte was the game-changer—with Mark. We had been good, but they put us into a different league. Scott was one of the few people who got to Bucknell who had every played water polo before. And Mark too—he had played. Kent Rafferty and Brad Fortin were also on the squad at the time, and they had both played at prep schools.
- In 1977 Bucknell had an established, talented team that added two dynamic freshmen. How did they mesh with the existing personalities on the team?
There was no tension. It was completely fabulous adding them. We were a good team—but they added value from the moment they got there. Neither of them was a selfish player. Scott definitely knows how to play offense, but nobody saw him as a selfish player. And Gensh wasn’t quite up to Scott’s level but he was a complete team player.
Scott was an offensive threat every time he got the ball. He and Rick together probably had 60% of the goals. But the team had a lot of bench strength.
- You obviously had the rivalry at Pitt. Were there other teams that you also saw as challengers in the East?
Senior year our biggest rivalry was Pitt because they beat us the year before in Easterns. Two other teams that were always a threat were Brown and Army. Another team which I had a soft spot for was Doc Hunkler’s team Slippery Rock.[Passages: Richard “Doc” Hunkler, Leading Proponent of Women’s Water Polo, Passes Away at 83]
Brown was the other team that was always really good at that time.
My senior year we did go to nationals—that was the first time we ever went because we were a full varsity team—and we beat Brown for seventh. In our first game against Cal-Berkeley we got blown away [28-10]. They just countered on us completely every time. They just stole the ball, went down, someone was always open—like 10 times I a row.
We had never played at that level.
But, during the year, Coach Russell had begun taking us up to Chicago. We did have a trip up to Chicago, and lost our first game, in overtime, to Chicago Circle. I remember the goal we lost on.
I think our record that year was 28-5, including the two losses at the national tournament.
- So you stayed locally to play.
We never went out to California at that time. The first time we played a California team was Cal-Berkeley in nationals.
And there’s the game that got you there—the match against Pittsburgh where you’re down 16-14 with less than a minute to play in the game.
It was actually 45 seconds left. And we had the ball.
And we were dejected. Let’s face it; they got that goal that put them up by two and there’s 45 seconds left. The possession clock is 35 [seconds].
It was not a good moment.
And we’re at Pitt.
We always had more people in the audience—all our parents always traveled to these things.
We got the ball. I believe that we scored. I passed to Scott [Shulte]—probably a foul in the hole, I passed to Scott and he scored. And that put us at 17 seconds.
Then it’s their ball. They took a time-out.
It’s a big pool. It was a legitimate-sized water polo pool—it wasn’t one of these 25 yard pools.
I went on the goalie, who got the ball. The rules at that point were that the goalie had three seconds to throw the ball. He could hold that ball for three seconds but I couldn’t interfere with him. He was outside the goal off to the side.
He got the ball. He looked around. I saw him pop the ball up in his hand. So it was now a live ball. I knocked it away. I passed the ball to Bill Vanderwilt, off to the side. I swam into the goal. He swam into the goal. Bill Vanderwilt passed me the ball back to me, and I threw the ball over his shoulder with two seconds left.
- You scored the tying goal?
Yeah. In regulation.
And you ask how I can remember this—I will never forget that. I mean, how do you forget that?! It’s the most exciting moment of your athletic career. It’s just not going to get any better than that. It was my senior year and we thought it was all over. But we just didn’t give up.
Then we went crazy. Then you go into overtime.
- A Pitt player said that because of kickouts, Bucknell had better players in the pool at the end.
That’s a good point.
Who is fouled out at that time? It’s hard to remember. I fouled out in the second overtime. At least half of our starters fouled out. And it could have been that more of theirs did—I don’t remember that. I don’t remember who was in the water.
But I know that at the very end, at least half of the starters were not in the water when the winning goal was scored in sudden death.
Sixteen to sixteen after regulation. After two overtime periods it was 20-20. And they were one after the other—I don’t think either team ever led by two points.
Then it went to sudden death. It couldn’t have been more than a minute, minute and a half. Somebody took a shot, it rebounded off the bar, in front of Mark Gensheimer, who I believe was facing away from the goal. He swept the ball around… and it went in.
- How did your team react at that moment?
Ecstatic beyond belief. Totally excited. Couldn’t control yourself just everybody going crazy.
Right after—and there is a tape of the whole game—the local radio station at Bucknell sent people out. A few of the swimmers who were no longer water polo players—Ron Liebowitz was one of them—and they narrated the whole game.
At the end they had me go up and talk to them—and of course I could hardly talk; I was a mess. The funny thing is I was asked: How did this happen? And I said: I was so [expletive] lucky!
All I know is I got back to Bucknell and there were these banners about how [expletive] lucky I was. [Laughs]
Then it’s off to the national championship…
We didn’t go to the West Coast. It was at Brown. We were on the East Coast. But it was Cal-Berkeley that blew us out in the first game.
- Was anyone on the team aware that this might be the start of a dynasty for Bucknell polo?
Had we been a varsity sport earlier—had that “ah ha!” a little earlier—we might have been better prepared for the onslaught of the California teams. As it turned out, the team members who stayed on—Kent, Brad, Andy Karpuk, Scott and Gensh—that was a great start for them. Most of them, aside from that junior year loss to Pitt, were part of winning teams for years.
Then Scott and Gensh as a team, they brought it to a different level and kept the momentum going. They’re both very talented but they’re also team-oriented.
That Bison success has continued to this very day, with a trip to California last year for the national championship. As a Bison alum, do you take some ownership for how things turned out?
I have really warm feelings about Bucknell, and so much if it is related to the aquatics program—swimming and water polo. The water polo group, it’s great. And the fact that a small university like Bucknell can consistently produce such quality water polo is a total source of pride for all of us.
And they’ve never been out of it—they’ve always been good. They may not have won Easterns but they’ve always had a good team and it was only a matter of time before they went back on top.
- And then it happens in 1978 you’re on the other side of the pool from Bucknell as the Pitt coach.
The odd thing is, at Pitt, here I was this 23-year-old coach—I didn’t plan to do that, by the way. I was planning to join the Peace Corp. I had taken interviews and waiting to be assigned in Africa. I got a call out of the blue from Dick Bradshaw, the aquatics director at Pitt. I didn’t know him. I have a feeling it was Doc Hunkler or others who recommended me. But I was from Pittsburgh.
He called and said he wanted to meet with me. And he offered me the job as the head water polo coach. I never applied for it.
That’s why I ended up there. They had a good graduate program and something I would have enjoyed doing—so it would have been a free graduate school. Plus I loved water polo to death. It was a great place to go.
Then, Title IX hit. So, I decided I needed to fight this. So here I am making these arguments to the Pitt athletic administration to keep water polo. Not seeing the big picture that—in order to meet the federal requirements they’re going to get rid of minor men’s sports as well as adding women’s sports.
While I’m doing this research and trying to make an argument to keep men’s water polo, I find out that Tony Dorsett, who is at Pitt at the time, the university paid more in his parking tickets than the annual water polo budget.
I don’t know how I found out but I did. Trust me, it’s nothing they wanted me to hear. Because (the cut) had nothing to do with money. Here I am convinced they’re paying more in [Dorsett’s] parking tickets than my sport costs.
But it was irrelevant because it was all about Title IX.
- Is that to say you never got to coach a game in 1978 for Pitt?
After Bucknell—in the fall of 1978—I coached Pitt for one full season. It was in the spring of 1979 that they dropped the bombshell. All these water polo programs across the country lost their varsity status, Pitt being one of them.
You had the core of the team that Miguel Rivera had recruited. So the guy who had prevented the team from advancing to the national championship is now the head coach.
At some point it’s hard to remember because you’re thrown in an adult job and you’re not quite an adult yet. I’m 22 years old during that season. And I still have all this energy around my alma mater. I think I had good relationships with these guys – they were good, good folks.
At the time, the best thing would be to let the talent on the team express itself, which they always did a pretty good job of. I end up trying to bring some of the structure that I learned and worked in at Bucknell to this team of different people, a different group.
We still performed pretty well. I don’t remember our record that year but we didn’t win the championship. Bucknell pretty much beat us each time.
It comes back to me now; I’d be on the deck coaching against Dick Russell. You’d be asked which cap (color) would you like and I knew he liked blue. I think of it now, it’s such a petty thing! I’d pick blue because that’s what he liked the most.
I think about it now and it’s so mean!
But, you’re young, you’re competitive and you want to show that you’ll fight your hardest.
We had a decent year but not as good as the earlier years at Pitt.
It’s now 2020—what is it that you remember most about this game in 1977 that made such a difference for Bucknell water polo?
I felt like I was right in the center of an amazing experience. The feeling after scoring that goal in regulation was something I’ve never experienced again.
I refereed league water polo for a couple of years, so I’ve kept up with people. But I always harken back. It created a bond among the people who were part of the program during that era. That’s a wonderful part of life.