The most important water polo region in America—contrary to opinions out West—is located primarily in the middle of the country. If the ill-named Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-West can find a path to success, then there’s hope for polo to grow out of its small—and still precarious—footprint as a primarily West Coast-based sport.
The single biggest developments for this group of (primarily) Division II schools was the loss earlier this year of Monmouth, Illinois men’s and women’s program and the addition of a new program in that state at Augustana College in Rock Island.[Augustana’s Ryan Pryor: Making the Move to the Midwest for Water Polo]
The Monmouth development is a pointed reminder on just how hard it is to grow polo out of its cozy confines in California. For six years Peter Ollis, who originated the school’s men’s and women’s program, was the Scots’ head coach. When he left, a search was undertaken; unfortunately this process took place during the height of COVID-19. No coach materialized and the program was dropped, much to the dismay of Monmouth players and their parents.
For the 2021 season, Augustana, one of two new men’s water polo program in the country, will play against MAWPC-West opponents. But as an independent DIII program it will not vie for the conference’s sole spot in the MAWPC Championship, to be held at Navy from November 19 – 21. The MAWPC Championship winner advances to the NCAA men’s national championship; in its six years of existence, no team from the conference’s western branch has advanced past the first round.
As a DIII program, Augustana does not offer scholarships, which puts the Vikings at a disadvantage against the four DII members of the MAWPC-West. The conference’s only DIII member is Washington & Jefferson. One hopes that as the Vikings—whose women’s will compete in the spring as part of the CWPA DIII Conference—get their footing they will migrate their men towards the MAWPC-West.
It makes absolute sense—especially if the goal is to grow polo in the country’s center and counter the Monmouth loss. Having another program in Lebanon, Illinois—where McKendree, a DII program is thriving—will be a boon to local competition. And polo in general.
Four of the five current conference members are located in the polo-rich area of Western Pennsylvania, where no less than five schools—Gannon, Mercyhurst, Penn State Behrend, in Erie, PA, Washington & Jefferson outside of Pittsburgh and Salem in West Virginia—regularly compete against each other.
California may be where the sport “lives” but if it’s to have a future, places like Erie, Salem, Lebanon and Rock Island need to sustain their programs.
Programs are listed alphabetically. McKendree and Salem received votes in the 2021 CWPA Preseason Men’s Poll.
Gannon (2020 Record: 7-2)
Back in 2018 Shane Unger made the bold decision to leave Socal, one of Southern California’s most successful age group clubs for Erie, PA and Gannon’s men’s and women’s program. The sunny expanse of the Pacific for the chilly confines of Lake Erie.
And Golden Knight polo supporters are grateful Unger and his family made the move. Now in his third season at Gannon, his men’s water polo team has continued an upward trend begun by previous head coach Sean Morphy, who took the program to a 20-1 record in 2018.
Unger has gone 18-4 in 2018 and 7-2 in limited play earlier this year. With an .806 winning percentage of —albeit in a very small sample—he has thus far produced the best statistical results in the program’s 20 years of existence.
Now, he needs to get his squad back to the MAWPC Championships. The Golden Knights qualified in 2019, Unger’s first year on the job, by virtue of a 15-14 overtime win against McKendree in the MAWPC-West Championships—then dropped a 21-8 decision to the Bearcats in the 2020 MAWPC-West in March.
The Golden Knights have a senior-laden roster to help in this, led by senior Drago Marjanovic (team-high 63 goals, 28 assists and 91 points in 2019). Also returning from the 2019 MAWPC-West champs: sophomore Thomas Squeglia (50 goals; team-high 21 exclusions drawn in 2019) and junior goalie Jacob Hollo (20 games started, 220 saves, 10.82 GAA in 2019).
The freshman class is six-deep; notable recruits include Ben Fribourg (Sycamore HS, Ohio), Alvaro Marco (Ies Ortega Y Gasset, Madrid) and Grant Simeone (Thomas Worthington HS, Ohio).
McKendree (2020 Record: 7-0; MAWPC-West Champions)
One of the tougher local polo stories earlier this year was the fate of the McKendree Bearcats. An undefeated record in the limited season, a decisive win over Gannon in the 2020 MAWPC-West title match. An automatic bid to the 2020 MAWPC Championships, right?
Wrong![Navy’s Nicolao Wonders What Might Have Been if not for March COVID-19 Outbreak]
An on-campus COVID-19 outbreak at host Navy caused the tournament to be moved to Bucknell. Only two other teams were allowed to join the Bison in this limited engagement, and both were DI programs. Bitterly, the Bearcats, a DII program, were denied an opportunity to become the first DII program from the East to qualify for the NCAA men’s tournament.
But, McKendree Head Coach Colleen Lischwe (4th season) is not deterred. With six seniors, two graduate students and four fifth-year athletes out of a roster of 19, Lischwe has more than enough experience on her roster to make a run to another conference title—and perhaps to open some eyes at the MAWPC Championships in November.
Key returners from the 2020 team are senior attacker Josh Carlson and a couple of fifth-year players: Pedro Osorio and Chava Osorio—both from Long Beach Community College.
Jespyn Bishop (Brighton HS, Colorado), Schuyler Cramer (Horizon HS, Colorado) and Alex Napawan (Parkway HS, St. Louis) are key freshmen for the Bearcats.
Mercyhurst (2020 Record: 3-5; 2-3 MAWPC-West)
The only thing that might be said in response to Laker Head Coach Curtis Robinette’s tragic passing earlier this year is: Let them play. Not such an easy thing after the abrupt loss of the person who for two decades had made Mercyhurst’s men’s and women’s teams go.
The good news is that the Lakers ARE playing. Zarko Sadikovic, with the assistance of Anna Batcheller, have taken responsibility for a program greatly in need of a lift. Coach Robinette had prepared well for a new season, with five seniors and five freshmen on a roster of 17.
Key returners for Mercyhurst in 2021 are junior Derek Kagan (16 goals, 17 assists, 16 steals in 2020) and seniors Mathieu Davis (19 goals in 2020) and Michael Gutman (12 goals, 10 assists in 2020). Goalie Nash Geeven (21 starts in 2019; 232 saves and a 14.32 GAA), also a senior, will be back in the Laker cage this fall.
Four freshmen will suit up for Mercyhurst in 2021 including Tony Golin (Dexter HS, Michigan) and Parker Wood (San Marcos HS, California).
Salem (2020 Record: 1-5; 1-0 MAWPC-West)
Ivan Zivojinovic (21 goals, 3 assists) and Petar Leontijevic (9 goals, 13 assists) led the Tigers during the abbreviated 2020 season. Both are graduated; for this season Head Coach Rob Bullion (11th season) has 11 freshmen—and two sophomores—on his roster of 17. One of those sophomores is Julen Alonso, who has the inside track on the netminder position over three freshmen—Goncalo Silva, Duarte Costa, and Tyrese Clement.
Sophomore Manuel Soto Estela (9 goals, 6 assists in 2020) and junior Saequan Miller (7 goals, 6 assist, 14 steals in 2020) will be back; their leadership may be key to what is likely a rebuilding year for Salem.
Washington & Jefferson (2020 Record: 0-7)
No wins any time looks bad—even in a shortened season like the February – March adventure which posed as the 2020 men’s campaign. For the Presidents of W&J things are definitely looking up despite that bumpy start to 2021. Head Coach Nikola Malezanov has a deep roster, with four seniors and ten juniors as part of his group of 18 athletes.
Key returners include seniors Will Kitsch, Kyle Rubenstein and Robert Koch—all of whom will be focal points of the Presidents’ offense.
On defense, Malezanov will sort through a trio of junior goalies: Caine Dusza, Alex Lee and Zishuo Ma. Dusza is the current pick, especially if he can stop shots. After a 25-24 loss to Salem last March in the fifth place game of the 2020 MAWPC-West —the most combined goals ever in a MAWPC-West Championship match–the Presidents proved (again) that defense not only wins championships, it just wins.
Malezanov knows this better than anyone; W&J is absolutely not giving up 20 goals again in a postseason match.