Men’s club water polo repeats runner-up finish at Nationals

Tufts' men's club water polo team, which finished as the runner-up at the College Water Polo Association Club National Championship, poses with its trophy on Oct. 20. CWPA-Club via Twitter

For the second time in as many years, Tufts’ men’s club water polo team finished second at Div. III club nationals. This year’s tournament was hosted by Wesleyan in Middletown, Conn. on Oct. 27–28. Tufts, which entered the tournament tied for second in the Div. III rankings, soundly defeated defeated No. 9 Grinnell College, 16–7, and No. 5 Bates, 13–9, on Saturday before falling to No. 1 Washington University in St. Louis, which won its fifth consecutive and sixth overall title, 10–6 on Sunday.

As the only Div. III team in its conference, the New England Division, Tufts automatically qualified as the sixth seed for the eight-team national tournament.

Before joining the New England Division last year, the team regularly finished in the top five at the national tournament, even winning it in 2009. Last year, the team reached the final but lost 17–7 to Washington University in its inaugural season in the New England Division. This year, the team finished fifth overall in the final conference standings, picking up six wins and six defeats, beating teams like Yale and the UConn. Stacked with strong Div. I teams like BC, BU and Dartmouth, the new league immediately reaped benefits for Tufts.

“We left a really weak league a couple years ago with a bunch of Div. III teams that honestly should be in inner-tubes,” senior co-captain Ross Wood said. “Playing better teams prepared us so much better against the Div. III teams we play at Nationals. Div. I teams have 12 guys from California who have played since middle school … If we can compete with that, we can definitely beat weaker Div. III teams.”

To underscore the relative weakness of Tufts’ old conference, the North Atlantic Division, its semifinal opponent and former conference foe, Bates, has racked up a 22–0 record in conference play over the last two years. However, Tufts has struggled to find a consistent level of competition between its former and current divisions.

“We pretty much know every game whether we’re going to win or lose,” senior co-captain Gabe Haddad said. “We haven’t had a close game all year, really. We either get blown out or dominate our opponents.”

Washington University represented one of those blowout results. According to the Collegiate Water Polo Association, it is the only team to have won four consecutive men’s national championships at either the Div. III or National Collegiate Club level. Senior co-captain Abe Massik felt that Tufts was simply outplayed.

“We definitely tried to win it and keep our hopes up, but I don’t think [Washington University] was ever worried,” Massik said. “They had more players at a higher level than us. At the top end, we were balanced, but they were very consistent towards the end of their lineup.”

Plus, Washington University had coaches. According to Haddad, Tufts is the only self-coached team in its conference and was the only competitive team at Nationals without an adult calling the shots. In a touch of class by the tournament’s organizers, Tufts’ trio of co-captains was awarded “Coach of the Tournament.”

Wood, Massik and Haddad have the sole responsibility of teaching the team’s 28 members, many of whom join with no water polo experience, the ins and outs of the game. The team’s new members range from first-years to juniors.

Wood explained that for an aquatic sport like water polo, skills from other sports are not easily transferable — unlike rugby teams, which are populated by former football and lacrosse players.

“Our new players start at such a base level,” Wood said. “Literally, ‘this is how you keep your head above the water.’”

While the new players’ lack of experience can be frustrating, Wood loves seeing their development over the course of the season.

“The growth you see in a season is unreal,” Wood said. “People who couldn’t do the ‘eggbeater’ [treading technique] scored their first goals yesterday. It’s such a grueling sport because we work so hard during practice, so it’s really nice to see it all come together.”

Water polo’s steep learning curve leads the team to practice for two hours a night, five times a week. Tufts’ practices are indicative of the sport’s physicality and grueling nature. According to Wood, the team swims about 2,000 yards — just over a mile — before continuing to other workouts and drills at every practice. Wood also highlighted “jug time,” in which players tread water while holding a five-gallon jug of water upside down over their head while all the water slowly streams out. Before matches, referees check the players’ fingernails and toenails to ensure there is not excessive scratching under the water’s surface.

The team has bought into the practice schedule this year more than it has the past, helping to contribute to the team’s success.

“The attitude in the past was pretty lazy,” Massik said. “This year, everyone was working in the summer and excited to get back into the pool. We got really lucky with the [first-years] who came in last year. They all love water polo and are learning a lot very fast.”

Enter sophomore Gian Marco Visani, the Faenza, Italy native who stepped up to play goalkeeper this season. Visani, who played water polo throughout high school, filled the shoes of former goalkeeper Hans Tercek (E ’18).

“I didn’t really want to [play goalie] in the beginning — I enjoyed not playing it last year,” Visani said. “But I got back into a groove and decided, ‘Yeah, I know what I’m doing, I enjoy it.’ People were saying [I am] good at it. If people like what you do, then you just keep doing it.”

Visani shined bright in the final against Washington University, stopping three of five penalty shots, which are usually converted at an 80 percent rate. While frustrated to fall to the same team for the second straight year, Visani has thoroughly enjoyed his experience on the club water polo team.

“I’m loving it. I love the group of people,” Visani said. “We get so loud, so excited. We have a lacrosse player [and] a football player who used to swim. It’s a random group. Every time we go to a tournament, we go in with the mentality of ‘Let’s win this but have fun doing it.’ When we have fun, we play well.”

Massik echoed Visani’s passion for the team, reflecting on his three-plus years in the sport.

“It’s pretty awesome to start a new sport and quickly, within a couple of years, become super invested in a team that’s trying to win a … national championship,” Massik said. “We have a group that’s really excited to play. Seeing people with that same enthusiasm is really cool and bodes well for the future.”