2019 Swimming World Men’s Water Polo Previews: Northeast Water Polo Conference

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A group of happy Tigers! Princeton wins the 2018 Northeast Water Polo Conference title. Photo Courtesy: CWPA

Last season Harvard could not be faulted for making NCAA plans in advance of their Northeast Water Polo Conference final against Ivy rival Princeton. The Tigers were losers to the Crimson in a bruising 2017 title match, a loss that ensured the exit of long-time Princeton coach Luis Nicolao. With a rookie head coach and missing Sean Duncan, the East’s best hole set, the Tigers and Dustin Litvak were a decided underdog against the defending two-time NWPC champions.

But the 2018 conference final didn’t play to script; Princeton, fielding a rookie goalie and getting a hat-trick from an unheralded player, stunned the Crimson 12-10 to win the NWPC title and advance to NCAAs for the first time since 2015.

A new year presents new opportunities for all six conference foes. Princeton, Harvard and Brown will battle it out for conference supremacy; St. Francis will look to slip into the title picture; MIT–with new head coach Austin Ringheim—and Iona will look to upset the expected order of NWPC play.

Editor’s Note: Rankings in parentheses indicate results of the 2019 Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Preseason Poll

princeton-tiger-logoTo have a freshman coach from the other coast win a title in his first year was an exceptional feat—but Litvak proved to be an astute hire for Princeton (#12). With a background steeped in the winning SoCal polo culture, and an apprenticeship under UCLA’s Adam Wright, Litvak played last season brilliantly, despite Duncan, perhaps the NWPC most potent offensive weapon, lost to injury.

Betting on a trio of freshmen—goalie Billy Motherway (196 saves), Keller Maloney (35 goals, 45 assists) and Wyatt Benson (31 goals) paid off handsomely for Tigers’ new coach. That and the emergence of Casey Conrad (28 goals; hat trick in NWPC final), who as a freshman in 2017 had 10 goals in limited playing time.

For his first recruiting class Litvak has brought in 8 freshmen, including Pierce Maloney—brother of Keller—and Ryan Neapole, both of perennial SoCal power Harvard-Westlake, Alex Roose, a 6-2 attacker from California’s Bay Area and Antonio Knez, a goalie from Croatia that has played for VK Jug, one of Europe’s top professional clubs.

All will need to contribute early and often; lost to graduation are all-time Tiger great Matt Payne (77 goals, 45 assists; 244 goals for his career), Ryan Wilson (31 goals; team-high 48 assists) and Michael Swart (27 goals). Maloney, Alec Mendelsohn (41 goals) Benson and Conrad all return, as does Duncan, who prior to double hip surgery was the best hole set on the East Coast, racking up 116 goals his first two seasons.

There’s no guarantee that Duncan will be ready for the rigors of polo—or that the Tigers can again beat out a talented Harvard squad—but in one year Litvak has shown that he puts his team, and his players, in position to win.

Key Match Up: Harvard, Saturday, October 5, Princeton, NJ

harvard_universitycrimsonIn one of the biggest polo upsets in years—and certainly the most memorable for the East—last September Harvard (#11) stunned then #3-ranked Cal in overtime—the first time the Crimson had beaten a team ranked so high. Head Coach Ted Minnis’ team cruised to a third-straight conference final, with hopes of yet another trip to the NCAA men’s tournament. The finals loss to Princeton shook up the hierarchy that Minnis—with superb recruits culled from the cream of the California polo crop—had established the previous two years.

The Crimson will be back with a vengeance in 2019. This fall, Minnis has brought in five blue-chip recruits, headlined by Alex Bucur of Harvard-Westlake and two players from Buchanan High School in the Bay Area; center Kaleb Archer and defender Gabe Putnam. They will pair up with a trio of exceptional offensive players: Dennis Blyashov (81 goals; 37 assists); Austin Sechrest (66 goals) and Charlie Owens (57 goals) to provide Minnis’ squad impressive firepower.

If there’s any questions about Harvard, it’s in goal. Sophomore Noah Hodge had an impressive rookie campaign (146 saves) for the Crimson but in the head-to-head battle with Princeton’s Motherway, the Tigers got the better of Hodge when it counted most. Both teams are evenly matched and Hodge—named All-NWPC First Team over his Princeton rival—had a spectacular freshman season until the NWPC final.

Key Match-Up: UC San Diego, Saturday, September 14, Princeton, NJ

brownSince winning the East in 2014—the program’s first NCAA berth in almost 30 years—Brown (#20) has been an also ran to its Ivy rivals, finishing 4th, 2nd, 3rd, and then 4th last year. Head Coach Felix Mercado hopes to change the Bears’ fortunes by bringing in four California freshmen—Cole Atwel of La Jolla High School, Leo Berkman of Miramonte, Nick Berry of Sir Francis Drake and Maxwell Patterson of The Menlo School—to augment a deep roster.

Returning for 2019 are Armen Deirmenjian (46 goals, 38 assists, 46 steals), Hudson Rawlings (38 goals, 33 assists), Aidan Reilly (34 goals, 31 assists) and James Thygesen (39 goals, 30 assists). In goal, Mercado can choose from junior Riad Hallal (158 saves) and sophomore Ugo Piovan (177); either of these players will need to be difference makers against potent offenses at Harvard, Princeton and St. Francis.

They’ll have to compensate for graduation losses that include Travis Bouscaren (team-high 58 goals) and Spencer Carroll (28 goals, team-high 44 assists).

Key Match-Up: St. Francis Brooklyn, Saturday, October 5, Brooklyn, NY

StFrancisBrooklynTerriersIn the past three seasons, St. Francis Brooklyn (#RV) has opened its season 1-5, 0-5 and 0-8. These slow starts have dragged down what has typically been a strong squad of foreign players that is often among the East’s best. For 2019, the Terriers will field yet another deep line-up, with 13 returning players and an influx of newcomers that Head Coach Bora Dimitrov hopes will get SFC off to a fast start.

Entering his final season in Brooklyn Heights is Will Lapkin, who last season delivered a team-high 46 goals and is one of the most versatile players to ever don St. Francis’ navy and crimson. Additional offense will need to come from returners Cody Alexander-Jones (15 goals), Matheus Santos (18 goals) and Boris Posavec (16 goals) as well as crop of newcomers from around the world, headlined by lefty Ivan Stefanovic, a transfer from West Valley College, William Simpson from New Zealand, Vladimir Mickic from Serbia and Adrian Mena from Hialeah, Florida.

[Will Lapkin, Magician with the Water Polo Ball]

Dimitrov will need all the scoring he can find, having graduated Botond Kadar (25 goals, 18 assists), Bogdan Kostic (30 goals) and Nikita Prohkin (22 goals). He’ll have to deal with the disappointment of Djorde Stanic (40 goals) transferring to Pacific. The massive Stanic was one of the most impressive newcomers in the East; he will be missed by a Terrier team that has not advance to a Northeast Water Polo Conference final since winning back-to-back Eastern titles in 2012 and 2013

The goalie situation is solid for SFC, with Benedek Molnar (163 saves) and Viktor Klauzer (47 saves) providing an experienced combination. If the Terriers can get a bit of early momentum and find a way to blunt Harvard, who have won four straight over the boys from Brooklyn, St. Francis should be in the mix for a NWPC title at season’s end.

Key Match-Up: Cal Baptist, Saturday, September 7, Providence, RI

MIT_logoWith their third coach in three years, MIT seniors Clyde Huibregtse, Hayden Niederreiter, Pat Stefanou and Ward Weldon would not be faulted for throwing down their calculators and asking: “Who’s next?”

Luckily, the Engineers will have the benefit of new head coach Austin Ringheim’s experience and enthusiasm to guide them in this new season. That, and the dynamic offense provided by Miller Geschke (58 goals, 28 assists). Throw in 39 goals by Huibregtse, 31 from junior Evan Kim, 30 from sophomore Kyle Sandell, and a break-out season for Niederreiter in the Engineer cage (150 saves), and Ringheim has a solid core to work with against the best of the Northeast.

[On The Record with Austin Ringheim, MIT Water Polo New Head Coach]

The Engineers return all but four players from 2018, when they were competitive in the NWPC despite winning only two of ten matches. The biggest loss to graduation was Lucas Novak (4 goals, 2 assists); the Engineers return 251 goals of 259 scored in 2018. Will this be enough to get them past tough Northeastern competition? That may be up to goalies Niederreiter and Conrad Oakes as well a top recruit, Sawyer Koetters from Santa Monica High School. And, Ringheim; if he gives his players more than a year of his time, there’s a chance that in the next few seasons the Engineers will be a team on the rise.

Key Match-Up: Iona, Saturday, October 5, New Rochelle, NY

IonaAfter a 2018 season that saw his team go winless (0-10) in conference play, Iona Head Coach Brian Kelly has gone on the offensive. With six freshmen—almost a third of his roster of 17—Kelly is banking on his prospects including Phillip Richman from The Bishop’s School in San Diego, goalie Kyle Laufenberg from Greenwich High School and Lester Machado from Hialeah High School in Florida.

They will ideally mesh with junior Patrick Hudak (65 goals), senior Quinn Lloyd (55 goals, 29 assists) as well as sophomore German Rodriguez (35 goals, 24 assists) as the Gaels return four of their top five scorers from 2018. The newcomers will have to help compensate for the loss of Andrew Brozovic (40 goals, 14 assists) to graduation.

Kelly also addressed his team’s biggest deficit; he pulled Jorge Andres Torres (328 goals allowed in 2018) from the Iona cage and will look to sophomore Michael Banks (116 saves) and Laufenberg to stem the flow of scores that resulted in a whopping 433 goals against last season—and a goal differential of -134.

Key Match-Up: Ottawa, Sunday, October 27, Santa Clara, CA