After three consecutive years finishing third at the Div. III Club Water Polo National Championships, the Tufts club water polo team decided it was time to step it up a notch. And that is just what it did this past weekend.
In a triumphant 9-6 victory over Monmouth University, the Jumbos secured their first-ever Div. III Club National Championship in the sport. After beating NYU 12-10 in the semifinal match, Tufts knew it had a chance to do something epic, and the Jumbos followed through to the end, completing a perfect 14-0 season with the championship victory.
“For the seniors, it was really a culmination of four years of very hard work,” senior tri-captain Braulio Rivas said. “Our first year, we made nationals on a technicality. Then every year after that we kept on doing better and better until our very last year when we finally won the national championship.”
“We have been so close the last three years that it feels absolutely incredible to be national champions,” senior tri-captain Mack Carlson added.
It didn’t come easily, particularly in the final match against Monmouth.
“In the championship game, we were down 0-2 in the first quarter,” Rivas said. “By the half it was 3-3 after senior Matthew Miller and I scored three goals to tie the game.
“But it wasn’t until the third quarter when senior Matthew Burke scored on a penalty shot with zero seconds left on the clock that we took control of the game,” Rivas continued. “In the fourth quarter, junior Alex Abeger scored two goals to put us up 9-6, and we secured the game.”
The Jumbos had recently locked down the North Atlantic Division and were pitted against Grinnell College coming into the first round of the tournament. They iced Grinnell in a 9-7 win, earning a trip to the semifinals. While Tufts had lost in this round each of the previous three years, this time around, NYU was not going to stop the Jumbos from achieving their goal of making it to the top.
“We definitely managed to come through the tougher side of the bracket to reach the championship,” Carlson said. “It was the fiercest competition we have faced all season.”
While it took the exceptional play of the team as a whole to win the championship, a select few managed to bring their games to a new level, helping the team reach unknown heights. Rivas said that in each of the three games, a different Jumbo took center stage.
“In Game 1, it was Matthew Burke; Game 2, it was [sophomore] Benjamin Koltai; in Game 3, it was Alex Abeger, all three of which made the All-Tournament team,” he said. “We also saw consistent and clutch scoring from Matthew Miller, Mack Carlson and myself. The anchor of the team came from junior goalie Brian Canter, who literally stared at the hearts of shooters and destroyed their will to score by blocking every penalty shot and making more saves than any other goalie in the tournament.”
“We had great chemistry this year,” Carlson added. “Everyone on the team knew their role and filled it perfectly. In other years, we have had standout players, but this year we had a complete team.”
Furthermore, Tufts got some great work out of its bench, which was vital to the Jumbos’ success considering how draining the sport of water polo can be in a single match, let alone three.
“The team has always had a very deep bench,” Rivas said. “When the starters get tired, we could always turn to our teammates [sophomore] Alex Strittmatter, [junior] Joe Lessard, [senior] Robert Delean and [sophomore] Travis Grodkiewicz.”
“This year, we really decided to play as a team,” senior tri-captain Lawrence Chan added. “People were looking out to help each other both in practice and in games, and it translated to an amazing season.”
The championship was such a feat that even some alumni were getting in on the mix.
“We also had Peter Georgakakos [LA ’09 and first team All-American last year, now playing for the University of Iowa] come back to coach us through the championship tournament,” Carlson said. “It was great to have him providing some guidance from the bench.”
“We had several alumni watching the games on livecast,” Rivas added. “It was fun to get calls and texts in between games saying congratulations or commenting and criticizing some of our plays and calls by the refs.”
Though the team will continue to play in the spring, the members of the senior class are essentially finished with their Tufts water polo careers. The six seniors — Rivas, Carlson, Chan, Miller, Delean and Elane Hoffman — will always have this championship to remember as the crowning achievement of their four years of water polo at Tufts.