Navy, Fordham Seek to Knock Bucknell from MAWPC Throne

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Actually two conferences—East and West—which will compete for a berth in the national championship, its the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference East that has represented the East Coast in the past three NCAA quarterfinals. The team primarily responsible for this success has been Bucknell; in 2019 the Bison stormed into Cambridge and ended the Crimson’s run of 29-straight wins. The Bison’s 13-12 win—a not-as-close-as-the-final-score victory—sent Head Coach John McBride’s squad to California for the postseason for the first time since 1985.

The Bison made it two in a row earlier this year in the 2020 abbreviated men’s season, hosting the MAWPC Championships on an emergency basis then beating La Salle for a spot in the 2020 NCAA Tournament.

The 11-3 loss to Bucknell was the Explorers’ final match as intercollegiate program; earlier in the year the La Salle Athletic Department chose to fold the men’s program after five seasons.

[Sign Of The (COVID) Times: La Salle Cuts Men’s Water Polo]

In a full season of play, what will the seven members of the conference—Mount St. Mary’s, a brand new program for 2020 will join the conference this fall—do next? Can Bucknell, which has established itself as the the East, continue to prosper without Rade Joksimovic, arguably American polo’s the greatest offensive weapon since Tony Azevedo? Will Navy, which was set to host the MAWPC tournament in March—then was struck by a COVID-19

Order of teams reflects the 2021 CWPA Preseason Poll, released on September 1, 2021.

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#17 Bucknell (2020 record: 4-2; 2020 1st in MAWPC championship)

Bucknell was one of three MAWPC squads to compete in an abbreviated men’s season in February and March. For John McBride’s team, it was a productive enterprise. They competed in six matches, qualified as the East’s representative in the 2020 NCAA Men’s Championship—Bucknell’s second straight trip to California for the national championship.

The question is: can the Bison do it again?

McBride (how many seasons?) has proven to be an astute recruiter, attracting athletes from all over the country—as well as abroad—that fit perfectly in his system. That’s proven true with Joksimovic, arguably the East’s most dynamic scorer since the days when Scott Schulte wore Bucknell’s navy and orange. It’s been born out by 202o graduate Logan Schofield, who worked himself into a polished two-way player. Schofield was a key contributor when the Bison snapped Harvard’s 29-match win streak—longest in East Coast history—and propelled themselves to their first NCAA quarterfinal since 1985.

It’s been true with the addition of Andu Vlasceanu (68 goals, 38 assists, 45 steals) a junior from Romania, and senior Jack Lewis (14 goals, 11 assists). In goal McBride can choose from junior Adrien Touzot (22 games started, 250 saves, 569 save % in 2019)senior Jack Otto (83 saves in 2019)—though Touzot was the choice down the stretch, including a huge performance against Harvard in the NCAAs.

The Bison will sport seven freshman this season including Jack Bruce (Greenwich High School), Mitchell Bugalski (Jesuit High School, Sacramento), Mason Maclear (Oaks Christian High School) and Hasan Mogultay (Istek Acibadem Anatolian High School, Turkey).

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#19 U.S. Naval Academy (2020 record: 6-1)

In the brief spurt of competition that was the 2020 men’s season, Navy posted a robust 6-1 record—including a win over Bucknell—and was slated to host the MAWPC Championships. Surely, the Middies were in position for their first trip to the NCAAs since the days of “Iron Mike” Schofield more than a decade ago (2008).

Then COVID-19 struck their Annapolis campus again. No more conference championship. No more promising season.

To suggest that the Navy comes into the 2021 season with a chip on its collective shoulders is to state the obvious. Under Head Coach Luis Nicolao (3rd season)—who at Princeton enjoyed the most successful career in the East besides Schofield, his former coach—the Academy in three short years has regained the swagger and focus that made their teams so formidable. Couple that with a re-establishment of the talent pipeline from polo-rich communities in Southern California, especially San Diego, and it will not be a long wait for Navy to be knocking on the door of an NCAA berth.

From the abbreviated 2020 season, where they went 6-1, Navy returns a number of key players. First and foremost is senior captain Isaac Salinas (team-high 89 goals, 16 assists, 2019), who has led the Middies in scoring his previous three seasons in Annapolis. Senior goalie Max Sandberg (20 appearances, 149 saves) will likely man the Navy nets—though Nicolao has options in junior Jonas Greer and sophomores Caden Capobianco and Owen Gurich. Junior Will Clark (21 goals, 24 assists, 45 points) and sophomore Kyle Yelensky will be important components in the Navy attack.

There’s also the recruits, who are as talented and deep as any Navy class in the last decade. Nicolao has 10 freshmen—part of an underclassmen component of 18, more than half of the team’s total roster of 35.

Notable newcomers include Chris Kim (Harvard-Westlake), Cole Mckechnie (Santa Margarita Catholic High School) and Erik Nordquist (Valhalla HS, San Diego).

With the talent spigot turned on full at Navy, it’s no longer a questions of if they will get back to NCAAs any time soon, it’s a question of when.

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#20 Fordham (2020 record: 1-0)

In 2020 the gradual transition in the Rams coaching shift was complete, as Brian Bacharach—who has been on staff in the Bronx since 2013—was named head coach for Fordham men’s water polo team. Bacharach had served as co-head coach with longtime leader Bill Harris, who will continue to assist as an assistant. But the fate of Rams polo is now fully in hand of the San Diego native.

Hands that have proven—especially in the past three seasons—to be very capable.

In 2019, Fordham enjoyed one of the best seasons in the program’s half-century of existence, winning 24 matches and knocking on the door of an NCAA berth.

That 2019 team was powered by Jake Miller-Tolt, who established program highs for goals (351) assists (220) points (571) and steals (296). Miller-Tolt has graduated, but plenty of his collaborators from 2019 have returned. Leading this pack is Dimitris Koukias (70 goals, 17 steals in 2019). Now a senior, the Greek native will be expected to pick up the offensive slack created by Miller-Tolt graduation.

In nets, Bailey O’Mara, the Rams’ 6-8 goalie, returns for his senior year. A reliable presence in the cage, O’Mara has helped backstopped his squad to a 41-24 record—the best three-season stretch in recent Fordham history.

But it is newcomers—including a couple of intriguing foreign-born athletes—who will likely tell the story of the 2021 Rams. Swede Hans Zdolsek, now a graduate student at Fordham, was on the 2019 Whitter squad that won the DIII national championship. Freshman Jacopo Parrella was called up for the Italian national team for the 2021 FINA Junior World Championships; he’s sure to provide plenty of skill and grit to the Ram attack. Another freshman is George Papanikolaou who was part of the Greek national team. Much closer to home is Mark Katsev, a product of Leon M. Goldstein High School in Sheepshead Bay and a one-time standout for the Y Pro age group club who finished his playing time in Greenwich.

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George Washington (2020 record: 1-4)

Before Bucknell was the dominant team in the MAWPC, the Colonials were winning titles and traveling to California. Then, two of the best players in program history— Atakan Destici and Andrew Mavis—graduated.

Luckily, Andras Levai (88 goals, 62 assists, 42 steals)—who with Destici and Mavis formed the East’s most lethal trios, will be back for a final season.

Head Coach Barry King  (4th season) is also picking up the pieces, including a roster which includes five freshmen as well as six sophomores—the building blocks of what will ideally be the next great Colonial squad.

Besides Levai, who is now a graduate student, seniors DJ Davis (20 goals, 24 steals in 2019), Nick Schroeder (23 goals, 31 assists, 30 steals in 2019) and Henry Maas (16 goals, 15 assists, 24 steals) return.

Notable freshmen include Nolan Bannerton (Darien HS, Connecticut)—who will challenge sophomore Luca Castorina for the top netminder job—and Andrija Sekulic (Savremena Gimnazija, Serbia),

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Wagner (2019 record: 8-23; 4-8 MAWPC)

The COVID-19 pandemic will proved to be either a blessing or a set-back for the 2021 Wagner men’s program. Head Coach Ciaran Wolohan, now in his second season leading the Seahawk men’s and women’s program, had an entire year to adjust to his position, after being thrust into a leading role by the abrupt departure of Chris Radmonovich, one of the country’s toughest and most-focused coaches.

[On The Record with Ciaran Wolohan, New Wagner Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach]

Unlike his predecessor, Wolohan is not a “fire and brimstone” but—after a standout Seahawk career as well as the example of his father Edward, a national team coach with Australia, he is well-equipped to lead his program.

The Seahawks return 11 players from the 2019 squad that finished fifth in the MAWPC. Key returners include junior Ethan Zirh (31 games started, 287 saves in 2019) who will be Wagner’s primary goalie. Junior Olivér Fodor (team-high 87 goals, 94 exclusions drawn in 2019), senior Vuk Bulajic (55 goals, 41 assists, team-high 55 steals in 2019) and junior Shaked Yacoby (23 goals, 26 assists).

Newcomers include freshmen Luis Camino Sosa from the Canary Islands, Mattia Bognolo from Australia and Jack Wilson from St. Francis High School in California.

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Johns Hopkins (2019 record: 11-23; 3-9 MAWPC)

Like MIT in the Northeast Water Polo Conference, the Blue Jays have multiple postseason options. One is infinitely more realistic than the other.

Head Coach Max Schlegel’s (2nd season) squad can compete for a MAWPC title—and opt to go to the NCAA Men’s Championship. This would mean beating all the other MAWPC squads in their postseason tournament. A very tall order indeed and one that has never happened in the 30+ years of the CWPA, which oversees competition in the East.

Or, they can go to the CWPA Division III Championship in late October and finish as one of the top two teams—automatically giving the Blue Jays a spot in the 2021 DIII National Championship. This is how they got to the very first DIII national tournament; chances are that Schlegel’s squad can do this again.

First, then need to find a goalie. In 2019 the Blue Jays were backstopped by Max Fleming. Young Max was a remarkable story; even though he had never played the position before—he had been a soccer goalie growing up in Miramonte, California—for this first (and only) season with Hopkins polo he was their only goal keeper. And, despite his inexperience, he did and incredible job, making 240 saves and backstopping 11 wins.

There are TWO freshman goalies on this year’s team: Connor Mechelke (De La Salle HS, Orinda, CA) and Kyle Pearson (Laurel Springs School, California). Both have extensive experience playing their position.

A trio of seniors return from the 2019 squad: Jayden Kunwar (team-high 99 goals, 48 ejections drawn in 2019); Jake Pearson (19 goals, 17 assists, 43 steals in 2019)—brother to freshman Kyle—and Emerson Sullivan (43 goals, 16 assists in an injury shortened 2019).

They will be helped by five freshmen and six sophomores who did not play at all last year because of COVID-19. Notable newcomers include freshmen Mechelke and Pearson in goal and sophomores Cameron Burns and Liam Housenbold.

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Mount St. Mary’s (2020 record: 5-4)

That Mount St. Mary’s men’s team was able to compete in a shortened season last February is an impressive story in itself. That Head Coach Alyssa Diacono was able to field a competitive team despite being a brand new program assembled during the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic—and emerged with a winning record—is nothing short of incredible.

All of which suggests: Do not go to sleep on The Mount.

[Five Questions with Alyssa Diacono, Mount St. Mary’s Men’s & Women’s Water Polo Coach]

After compiling a 5-4 record in January and February of 2021, including wins over Mercyhurst—where Diacono served as an assistant coach under Curtis Robinette—Salem and Washington & Jefferson, MSM brings back all its players for this fall season.

Statistical leaders from the spring are senior Eli Thalos (18 goals, 21 steals, team-high 19 ejections drawn) and a pair of sophomores: Jason O’Donnell (50 goals in nine matches; 18 steals) and Jason Fitch (10 goals).

Marko Kruska, a 6-5 senior from Serbia, collected 84 saves in those nine matches; he’s backed up by sophomore Joseph Maxson.

Diacono has a roster 15 deep, with eight freshmen combined with four sophomores—including a wise pick-up from the now-disbanded La Salle squad. Kiahi Horan, who registered 10 assists for the Explorers last spring, will now be dishing it this fall for The Mount.



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