Editor’s Note: 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.
What follows is the final in a series of articles about the participants and circumstances around one of the more memorable polo matches in Eastern intercollegiate history. The first two were an interview with Scott Schulte of the 1977 Bucknell squad, and a discussion with Jorge Machicote, a member of the opposing Pitt team.
Third is a discussion with Jay Fisette, who scored the tying goal in the fourth period, then went on to take the coaching reins at Pitt. The fourth is an interview with Miguel Rivera, architect of the Pitt men’s water polo program, while fifth is a conversation with Willo Rodriguez, current head coach of the Puerto Rican men’s national team.
There’s a dedicated thread for this story on the Water Polo Planet message board; it can be found here.
A span of 43 years can bend memories to fantasy, where the impulse to exaggerate might be fueled by pride for exploits hazily remembered—and long past changing.
For the participants of a water polo match on November 13, 1977, in Pittsburgh University’s Joseph C. Trees Pool, their elation—and disappointment—is palpable more than four decades later. Bucknell, a small liberal arts school in the center of Pennsylvania known primarily for its academic prowess, defeated the Pitt Panthers 21-20, scoring twice within an eighteen-second span in the fourth quarter of regulation to send the game to overtime.
Their sudden death victory propelled the Bison to their first-ever NCAA postseason tournament and kicked off a run of four straight national championship appearances. For Pitt, it brought an abrupt halt to what had been a fleeting era of success in water polo.
Rivera engineers Pitt success thanks to a Puerto Rican connection
Panther polo’s whirlwind ascent—laying the groundwork for what was to be one of the greatest games in Eastern polo history—can be traced to the arrival of Miguel Rivera in 1974.
A successful swimmer and water polo player from Puerto Rico who had earned a master’s degree at San Jose State, that summer Rivera arrived in Pittsburgh from San Juan, His pursuit of a doctorate in Exercise Physiology would surprisingly include building the East’s best men’s water polo team. He was certainly qualified. Rivera’s résumé featured stints both playing for and coaching with the Puerto Rican national team, and his arrival in Pittsburgh was fortuitous. The Panther swim teams, coached by Dick Bradshaw, had cultivated a core of Puerto Rican athletes, with positive results both in the pool and the classroom.
Bradshaw believed strongly in the benefits of all aquatic sports, including water polo, a sport never before attempted at Pitt. As his academic advisor and athletic mentor, he plotted with Rivera to tap a deep reservoir of Puerto Rican talent for Panther polo. Successfully shepherding prospects through the admission requirements of a high-achieving American university allowed Rivera to assemble a nucleus of talented players, many of whom had experience as members of the Puerto Rican national team.
“I was respected as an athlete in Puerto Rico due to my background in swimming and water polo,” Rivera said. “I had coached a couple of teams that were successful—we had won three national titles, and I was part of the national team. That helped convince athletes to join me in this Pittsburgh adventure.”
Phil “Papo” Ruiz was one of those recruits. Rivera offered him an opportunity to matriculate beginning in 1977—but only if he skipped his senior year in high school. The summer before he was to start at Pitt, he crammed in a year of study so that he was ready to jump into both school and polo.
“When [Rivera] came to Puerto Rico in 1976, I was in tenth grade,” Ruiz said. “The only opportunity I had to make that Pitt water polo team was 1977.… I had to take courses during the summer so I could graduate a year [early] and go to Pitt.” He continued: “You know what’s the craziest thing? My English was zero. I knew how to play water polo, but I didn’t know English at all.”
Ruiz joined a team with championship expectations. Mike Mere was a talented playmaker; he would score 57 goals in 1977 and dish out 22 assists, second on the team. The “big man”—both in size and by position—was 2-meter man Jorge Machicote. He’d rack up 76 goals that season, tops on the squad. Toro would lead the team with 26 assists and chip in 45 goals, while Butch Silva collected 56 goals and 25 helpers. Roberto Simonetti was a strong swimmer off the bench. Ruiz (46 goals, 16 assists)— the team’s sixth Puerto Rican—would pair with another newcomer to make significant contributions; Barry Ford, a freshman from the Philadelphia suburbs, collected 22 goals and 11 assists while forming a close bond with Ruiz.
There was Mike Schofield, recruited for Pitt soccer, was converted to polo by the new coach. Because funds were limited, Rivera built the goals himself—a process that Schofield, a lifeguard at Trees Pool at the time, watched with bemusement. He was there when the goals were completed that summer—and Rivera then coaxed the 6’3” Schofield into the pool.
“Once we got the goals in, he instructs me to get in the cage so he could do some shooting,” Schofield recalled. “Keep in mind, I had never seen the game played, so of course Miguel is buzzing balls past me right and left.”
Schofield switched places, with Rivera getting in the cage. Admitting he was a bit overconfident—and underestimating Rivera, who had been a goalie for the Puerto Rican national team—Schofield said, “Fortunately, I am left-handed and had a decent arm, and was able to get the ball past Miguel a few times. Afterwards, he says to me, ‘You know we’re starting a water polo team this fall, you should try out.’ So I did.”
Schofield competed on Pitt’s first-ever squad in 1975, and would score 43 goals in 1977.
As a measure of the Panthers ability, six players—Ford, Machicote, Mere, Ruiz, Silva and Toro—would be selected All-East in 1977, the most that year of any team in the region. Rivera’s goal to develop a cohesive unit committed to what it took to win had been proven in 1976, when a two-year-old Panther side upset the one Eastern opponent that mattered most: Bucknell.
Strong swimming begets superb polo
In the Panthers, the Bison had a worthy opponent during their own watershed moment. Under Dick Russell, Bucknell’s swimming and water polo coach, the Bison as a club team had won Easterns—the East coast’s most prestigious collegiate tournament—in 1974 and ’75. But, as a club team, they were not welcome at the NCAA men’s national championship.
The co-captains in 1977 were Jay Fisette and Rick Renner. Renner was the team’s leading scorer in 1977, registering 121 goals, thanks in part to Fisette (77 goals, 73 assists) who did the dirty work as the team’s primary 2-meter man.
They both had been recruited by Russell to swim, with the understanding that they would also play polo. Fisette, along with Don Moll, who graduated in the spring of ‘76, successfully lobbied the Bucknell athletic department to change water polo’s status from club to varsity. This meant that, if they reclaimed the Eastern title in 1977, for the first time the Bison would advance to NCAAs.
Renner credits a core group of players from earlier years—those who helped Bucknell to its first two Easterns titles—with the switch to varsity status.
“I would say the seniors when I was a sophomore—[Joe] Triszczuk, [Marc] Sickle, Geoff Miller and Roger Schwanhausser—they were the ones who led” Bison polo to the next level, Renner said.
As a result of the new status, Russell was able to recruit two players who would prove to be among the best in the program’s history. Mark “Gensh” Gensheimer was from Pittsburgh, where he had played with Fisette, Schofield and Sickle on the Renegades, one of the East’s top clubs. Gensch picked Bucknell because of its location and academic reputation. Given his swimming and polo skills he quickly became an essential contributor, with 42 goals in 1977.
Joining the starting line-up was Scott Schulte, a freshman from Montclair, New Jersey, who had played up and down the East Coast. He was a talented scorer—a team-high 153 goals—and swimmer who fit in perfectly with Russell’s concept.
“When I was recruited, just like Gensh, the big plus was I could swim and keep getting better at water polo,” Schulte said. “The biggest thing was that Bucknell was going varsity my freshman year.”
The newcomers joined a squad that had depth and experience. Besides Fisette and Renner, there was Andy Karpuk and Jim Grimes, both juniors, and Kent Rafferty, a sophomore from Pittsburgh.
The Bison were consistently best in the competitive world of Eastern polo. But their 1976 season had been wrecked by the Panthers, who beat them four times, including 14-12 in the Eastern Water Polo League (EWPL) Southern Division Championship. Now, with an NCAA championship as the ultimate prize, and the arrival of fresh talent, the prospects were good for a Bison revival in ’77.
Pittsburgh: a late 70’s sports Mecca
1976 was a glorious year for Pitt athletics. Tony Dorsett, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, led the Panther football team to an undefeated season and a unanimous national championship. On January 1, 1977, he capped off the greatest season in program history, rushing for 202 yards as Pitt defeated Georgia 27-3 in the Sugar Bowl.
Earlier that season, in November 1976, the Panther’s win over the Bison qualified them for their first and only NCAA tournament. Their success was as exhilarating as it was unexpected.
“It was a fun time to be in Pittsburgh,” said Toro, who played three years for Pitt. “We’re talking about the place to be in the late ‘70s—this was the Dorsett era.”
That an industrial hub in Pennsylvania would be central to one of the East’s greatest polo matches came as no surprise to long-time polo observers. Mike Graff—currently the board chair for USA Water Polo, the national governing body for the sport in America—had overseen the Renegades for years.
Paul Barren, a coach and referee, was also significant to the state’s polo life. He coached Pitt’s Ford at Lower Moreland High School in the Philadelphia area, and traversed the state for polo. He was on the deck refereeing many Pitt/Bucknell contests.
Unlike much of the East, where 25-yard long, shallow/deep pools were the norm, Pittsburgh had an Olympic-caliber facility. At 50 meters long, it was ample enough for an all-deep 30-meter polo course. The dimensions favored the Panther players. Given their international experience, Pitt’s Puerto Rican players had a decided advantage at home—which was the site of the 1977 EWPL championships.
Schulte pointed out that the combination of a superb facility mixed with talented international and local players allowed Pitt to rise quickly in Eastern polo ranks.
“It was like plug-and-play,” he said, resorting to imagery unknown in 1977. “They had a beautiful facility, they got these players from Puerto Rico, you complement them with a couple of players in the Pittsburgh area—and suddenly they have a powerhouse team.”
Both squads came into the November 13 ’77 final on a wave of success. Bucknell had suffered just two losses all season: a 17-15 decision to Pitt a week earlier, and a 21-20 overtime loss to University of Illinois Chicago Campus on October 21.
According to Schofield, the rivalry between the schools was particularly heated because of the Pittsburgh connection.
“Beating Bucknell was a big deal because they were the king of the hill going into the season,” he said. “We always seemed to have tough, competitive games with them. In addition, several of their players, like Mark Gensheimer and Jay Fisette, were Pittsburgh friends of ours who trained and competed together in the summers. Mike Graff was our summer coach, along with Doc Hunkler.” Richard “Doc” Hunkler, of course, was nearby Slippery Rock State’s long-time (and polo Hall of Famer) head men’s and women’s coach.
Pitt had seven losses that season—including two earlier defeats to the Bison—but came into the final on an eight-game winning streak, including the victory over Bucknell. Both teams needed Sunday morning wins to advance to the final; the Bison beat Cornell 10-6, while the Panthers knocked off Army 14-10, setting up a rematch of the 1976 final.
Handicapping the sides so many years later, Schofield recalls that his team was more explosive offensively, while Bucknell was stronger on defense—with neither team being distinguished in goal.
The play that made the game
Much has been made of the epic sudden-death finale, when Bucknell scored early in the third overtime to end the marathon contest. But an extraordinary finish in regulation, when the Bison rallied for two goals in the final seconds to tie, made that multi-OT happen.
The Panthers fielded a line-up of Machicote, Ford, Toro, Ruiz, Mere and Silva, with Steve Feller, a freshman who had matured quickly, in goal. They were talented, experienced and backed up by Schofield, Simonetti and Wynne Hunkler, son of Doc Hunkler.
On the other side of the pool, the Bison started Schulte, Fisette, Renner, Fortin, Karpuk, Gensheimer and goalie Jack Micca, tasked with making the routine save. Officiating the match were Barren—the most respected ref in the region—and Marc Sickle, the former Bucknell standout in his first full year as a referee.
Bucknell led 12-9 at the half, and held a 13-12 advantage entering the fourth period. But the host Panthers rallied to earn a 16-14 lead with less than a minute left in regulation. It was clear to almost all that, short of a miracle, Pittsburgh would be returning to NCAAs for a second straight year.
Four decades later, Fisette said he never lost hope. The Bison co-captain believed there was a chance, albeit small.
First, his team had to get within one.
“Thirty-seven seconds left and we had the ball,” he explained. “We were dejected; let’s face it, they got a goal that put them up by two and the possession clock is 35. I believe I passed to Scott, a foul in the hole, and he scored. And that put us at 18 seconds. Then, it’s their ball and they took a timeout.
“I went on the goalie, who got the ball. At that point in time, the goalie had three seconds to throw the ball. He was outside the goal, off to the side. He got the ball [and] looked around. I saw him pop the ball up in his hand—now it’s a live ball. I knocked it away. I got the ball. I passed the ball to Bill Vanderwilt, off to the side. I swam in front of the goal. He [Feller] swam into the goal, Bill passed the ball back to me.
“I threw the ball and it went over [Feller’s] shoulder, with two seconds left.”
Referee Sickle, whose former teammates had lost the 1976 EWPL title match to Pitt, had a privileged view of the action.
“At this point, I thought the game was over and PItt would win the Eastern Championship,” Sickle remembered about the final minute of regulation play. “Of the entire game, those few seconds are what I recall most vividly. I recall counting off the seconds for the goalie to clear the ball and run out the clock, but then—rather than clearing to the wing, he passed it up the middle. Jay Fisette was guarding the player and executed a clean steal.”
“The rest is history,” said Sickle. “I do have to say I felt fortunate to be a part of the game and finish [it] without either team wanting to tar and feather me.”
A failure to execute
In a phone conversation many years later, Pitt’s Rivera broke down the play as it was designed—and how it was executed. He decided that his young goalie should be entrusted with the biggest play of the season. Feller had replaced Walt Young, a graduated senior who had backstopped the Panthers to NCAAs in 1976. His coach felt the freshman had performed well enough to earn a pivotal role in the game’s critical play.
“We call time out,” Rivera begins. “We went through the play; Bucknell is going to put two guys in front of the goalkeeper. That means downfield, two open guys—or at least one, because the keeper, way down, could guard our hole man.
“If they leave the hole man open, piece of cake. With one or two passes, foul and we are in business. I designated the more cool guy—Mike Meres, the most talented guy on my team—on the right side of the goal. The goalie, as soon as the referee put the ball in play, he has to lift the ball, pop it up and make the pass—easy. Fly over one of the guys … game over![Meres] could swim down, outsprint the two guys—[he’s an] excellent swimmer—then, look for the hole man, pass or keep driving.”
Rivera said he reminded his goalie exactly what to do.
“We repeat again what we’re going to do; the referees are going to give [Feller] the ball, he’s going to put it into play and pass it to Mike,” he said.
As all now know, the action did not go as planned. Here’s Rivera explaining how the most important sequence of his coaching career in Pittsburgh went awry:
“The referee gave [Feller] the ball … he drops [it]. He tries to catch it, then he attempts to swim with the ball. The keeper usually has lots of trouble breaking out of these situations. I think it was Jay [Fisette], one of the guys in front of him, and he took the ball away and scored.”
Forty-three years later, Schofield, who was in the water away from the action, could only express disbelief about what transpired.
“Certainly, you would expect to win the game with a one-goal lead, the ball, and a timeout with under 20 seconds to play,” he said, then added, “Steve was a freshman, and a lot was asked of him in that situation.”
A thrilling finish—and the end of Panther polo
The Panthers did not lose the game then; there were two overtime periods of back-and-forth play that left the teams tied at 20 entering a third overtime period—sudden death.
A minute into the period, Pitt looked to finish it but missed, and on the counterattack, Schulte drew an exclusion to give the Bison a man advantage. Renner, desperate to end it, was blocked by the Panther goalie, but freshman Gensheimer was there to sweep the rebound past Feller for the win.
“I felt like I needed to be the leader,” Renner said. “I wanted that ball, I wanted to score. Gensh took the rebound with his left hand and flipped it in. He and I were next to each other just screaming when the ball went in.”
Decades later, the man who scored that monumental goal remembers it differently.
“After scoring I was immediately sunk by a couple Pitt defenders and then came up and was bear hugged and sunk again by Rick Renner,” Gensheimer recalled.
“I’ll never forget that look of pure joy on Renner’s face.”
In the aftermath, the Bison moved on to the NCAA postseason, finishing seventh of eight teams in a national championship won by Cal-Berkeley. The Panthers plotted revenge in 1978, but it would not include the coach who had pushed them to achieve so much so quickly.
“I had set high goals—I accept that,” Rivera explained. “The situation was this: I completed my degree. My background was not from a wealthy family. I needed to get a real job,” adding “[i]t still hurts to have made the decision of not remaining at Pitt at that time. I knew the guys were really looking forward [to] coming back strong.”
Rivera, doctorate in hand, returned to Puerto Rico, where he went on to be a major player in the country’s sports medicine programs, including Coordinator of the Scientific Congress and sub-director of the doping commission when the island hosted the 1979 Pan American Games.
Pitt goalie Feller was in a car accident that summer and was out for the season. Plan B in the goal was Schofield, who modestly copped to being “nothing special.”
After a third-place finish at Easterns in 1978, academic budgets at Pitt were trimmed. The result was that, a year after this monumental set-to, varsity polo was cut at the University of Pittsburgh. Papo Ruiz, who had made it his young life’s mission to play for the Panthers, now had a difficult decision: stay and stop playing, or go somewhere else to continue his college polo career. He had an offer to play at Slippery Rock; Doc Hunkler—whose son Wynne was Ruiz’s good friend from Pitt—made the pitch. But after considering it, he decided to stay. His final two years he played varsity volleyball at Pitt.
“I was not as good as at water polo, but I made the team,” he said.
Luis Toro, who ended up becoming an orthodontist, has a daily reminder of just how fierce that rivalry was: a broken tooth administered courtesy of a stray Bucknell elbow.
“One of the things they always tell you when you’re changing directions: always keep your head above water,” he explained. “I didn’t follow that coaching advice—the elbow from the Bucknell player came up, and I lost the entire front section of a lower tooth. Ever since then, I see my resins, and I have to change it every five years. I’m a dentist, so it’s very easy—but I have a reminder of my error and my Bucknell rivalry every single day.”
Jay Fisette’s story is perhaps the most ironic. He made the pivotal play in the 1977 match for Bucknell—and the following season took over as Pitt head coach in Rivera’s wake.
High times for Bucknell polo
That final featured five future Hall of Famers. Schulte and Gensheimer were the core of a Bucknell program that would go to four straight NCAA tournaments. They, along with Coach Russell, have been inducted into the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Hall of Fame. Schulte, who still holds the record for goals scored in a collegiate career (586), is also a member of the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame.
Mike Schofield went on to a phenomenal career as the head men’s coach at Navy, guiding fourteen teams to NCAAs while amassing 631 wins—more than any other coach at the Naval Academy—and earning a place of his own in the CWPA Hall of Fame.
His final word on one of the greatest games he was ever involved in?
“Sometimes losing hurts more than winning feels good.”
Ford, whose Pitt career end abruptly in 1978, recalled: “I will never forget Paul Barren telling me after the game that I had just been part of the best college game that had ever been played on the East Coast.”
In 2004 Barren was inducted into the CWPA Hall of Fame for his contributions as a polo referee and coach.
Schulte, who went on to a successful career in financial services while keeping his hand in the game playing for and now coaching the New York Athletic Club men’s team, was reflective:
“That particular game, let’s say we lost to Pitt, who knows what would have happened with our program? We wouldn’t have gone to NCAAs four times—or won four Eastern Championships in a row,” he said.
“When you play and win games as a team—you have it built into you that, no matter what, you’ll find a way to win. That was the momentum-builder for us, to realize we could win these games. And we won a lot of them.”