Top Five Stories from 2021: No 5—Water Polo is Back!


Editor’s Note: The end is near! 2021 is almost in the books, so TWp is looking back on the five biggest story lines of the year. Today we focus on the joy of playing; after a rough start due to COVID-19 bans and outbreaks, the NCAA men played an abbreviated season while the NCAA women got in most of a campaign. Things really picked up in the summer with a complete—though spectator-less—Olympic Games in Tokyo and then a complete NCAA men’s season with the usual ebbs and flows (and, for the 24th year in a row, a Pac-12 team emerging as national champions). Tomorrow we’ll look at how the Olympics both satisfied and frustrated many polo observers.

Because it’s been almost a year of play without any major COVID interruptions, we all should be grateful (right?!). And we are—especially after a helluva NCAA final where the Golden Bears of Cal came back TWICE to slay the USC Trojans and claim a record 15th national championship.

[Cal’s Men’s Water Polo Team Defeats USC For 15th NCAA Title]

In case anyone wants to relive the misery of 2020, read Steven Munatones piece from that time on how much impact COVID-19 had on California high school and club play:

[Munatones on Water Polo in California: Lockdown is Absolutely Crushing]

Cal played “beautiful water polo” in beating USC in the 2021 NCAA final. Photo Courtesy: Cal Athletics

Most importantly, there were no major stoppages due to the virus. Tony Kamaran, a referee who traveled to both coasts for competition, mentioned recently that some officials were affected by the coronavirus, but the impact was not noticeable to most observers—a credit to Amber Drury, NCAA men’s and women’s water polo coordinator of officials and her staff.

[On The Record with Tony Karaman: “It Was Tough But Water Polo Survived”]

The 2021 national championship did have its COVID-19 moment, as Princeton head coach Dustin Litvak and a couple of his players tested positive for the virus just before the Tigers’ quarterfinal match against #1 seed UCLA. According to Kamaran, the absence of their coach and star freshman Vladan Mitrovic had an impact in the Bruins’ one-sided win.

Would that score be different than it was? With all due respect to Adam Wright [UCLA coach] and his team, but also to Derek Ellingson [Princeton assistant coach] who stepped in, it would be different per my opinion. I think the game from the beginning would be different. Dusty would be leading, and they would have played with a full squad.

However, all should be grateful that this men’s season was spared the uncertainty that has come to dominate the early months of the NCAA men ‘s and women’s basketball seasons. And the abbreviated affair that last March passed for the 2020 campaign—which resulted in UCLA beating arch-rival USC for what could best be considered as the unofficial MPSF title.

But coupled with the fact that the women got in a (relatively) full season of play last spring, with USC claiming the program’s seventh NCAA title thanks to a resounding victory over UCLA, and—COVID-willing—are gearing up for a typical season next month, American polo fans can breathe a sigh of relief that their sport perseveres.

Even the Tokyo Games, devoid of fans, proved to be compelling, with pre-tournament favorites Serbia for the men’s gold and the U.S. for the women’s both stumbling before roaring to repeat Olympic glory. Dejan Savic’s squad, the oldest in this year’s men’s bracket, knocked off Greece 13-10 to win a second-straight Gold—and the country’s fourth consecutive Olympic medal (including bronze in 2008 and 2012). For his efforts, Savic was named FINA’s 2021 coach of the year, and Filip Filipovic was cited as FINA’s 2021 player of the year.

[Steffens and Filipovic receive FINA Awards for 2021]

U.S. goalie Ashleigh Johnson leads parade of Americans celebrating a third-straight Olympic Gold. Photo Courtesy: FINA

Adam Krikorian’s team tied the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Hungarian men as the American women won a third straight gold, dominating Spain 14-5. Captaining the U.S. was the incomparable Maggie Steffens, who also copped top FINA honors as the 2021 women’s water polo player of the year—her third time in the award’s 10-year history. Krikorian was named FINA’s top women’s coach in the sport.

[Unsparing USA women engulf Spain to cap rare Olympic water polo threepeat]

There were the COVID program casualties. Sonoma State and George Washington cut their women’s teams, while La Salle terminated its men’s program. Last year, Urbana University, a Division II school out of Urbana, Illinois, not only cut its women’s water polo program; the entire school shut down.

[La Salle Men’s Water Polo Cancellation a “Shock” for Hyham]

But this is a glass half-full view; women’s polo will begin before we know it. The Arizona State Invitational is scheduled for January 21-23; several top teams likely to be ranked in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Top-25 poll—University of California Irvine, Fresno State, Michigan, and Cal—will be in the water at ASU’s Mona Plummer Aquatic Center, kicking off what will ideally be a glorious 2022 women’s campaign.