A Ray of Sunshine for Water Polo: Mount St. Mary’s to add Men’s, Women’s Polo as Varsity Sports

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The Mount St. Mary's pool will soon be hosting Mountaineers men's and women's polo. Photo Courtesy: Mount St. Mary's Athletics

In a reflection of the rippling waves of growth that the sport is enjoying at the moment, Friday Mount St. Mary’s Director of Athletics Lynne Robinson announced that, beginning in the 2020-21 school year, men’s and women’s water polo will become the Mount’s 23rd and 24th varsity sports.

mount-st-mary-logo“We are pleased to announce the addition of men’s and women’s water polo to our offering of varsity programs at Mount St. Mary’s University.” Robinson said in a prepared statement. “Water polo has experienced tremendous growth in popularity the past few years, including growth at the high school and club levels on the East Coast. This is another great opportunity for us to give students a chance to further their education at the Mount and compete at the Division I level.”

Signs of polo expansion are visible all over the country. Over the past year alone, four schools — Biola University in California, Millikin University in Illinois, Ottawa University in Arizona and Urbana University in Ohio — have added the sport. And there’s likely more to come, especially in light of the USA Water Polo Division III Collegiate Water Polo National Championship that took place last month, won by host Whittier College. It is the first-ever men’s national title. A women’s national DIII tournament will take place on in early May, opposite the 2020 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament.

In a round table discussion held at Whittier’s Donald E. Graham Athletics Center in December,  Jen Dubow, Commissioner of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, John Abdou, Chief High Performance Officer for USA Water Polo and Dan Sharadin, Commissioner  of the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) spoke about their partnership which is intended to grow the sport.

[SW Polo Roundtable With Jen Dubow, John Abdou & Dan Sharadin On Biggest Issues Facing The Sport]

Both new Mountaineer teams will be under the jurisdiction of the NCAA, and under the guidance of the CWPA.  In yesterday’s statement, CWPA Commissioner Sharadin expressed his satisfaction about this latest program being added to the roster of NCAA varsity programs.

“We are excited to hear the news that Mount St. Mary’s is adding men’s and women’s varsity water polo,” said Sharadin, who for the past three decades has been one of the leading proponents growing polo. “The sport has been growing recently on the collegiate level and the addition of their teams provides more opportunities for the many high school athletes looking to compete at the highest level.”

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What every athlete wants: championship hardware. In this case, Whittier celebrates DIII title. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

He also mentioned that other members of of the various CWPA men’s and women’s conferences, which includes a Division I women’s bracket and two DI men’s—the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference and the Northwest Water Polo Conference—will provide The Mount any assistance necessary to launch their program. The conference’s Division I women’s roster includes Brown, Bucknell, George Washington, Harvard, Michigan, Princeton and St. Francis University. It was not specified which of the CWPA’s men’s conferences Mount St. Mary’s will join.

Northeast Conference may be the ultimate winner

By adding a women’s team for the 2021 season, Mount St. Mary’s becomes the fifth school in the Northeast Conference to host the sport. This is significant; The Mountaineers will play polo in the CWPA with the Red Flash of St. Francis, another NEC school. Long Island University—which is competing this spring for the first time—St. Francis Brooklyn and Wagner are NEC-affilated schools whose women’s water polo in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC).

“It’s exciting to hear about Mount St. Mary’s decision to expand its varsity sports program with the addition of women’s water polo,” said Noreen Morris, Commissioner of the Northeast Conference.  “The NEC membership has been monitoring the rise in the number of men’s and women’s sports sponsorship throughout the league, and with this announcement, we will continue to evaluate and discuss the league’s overall sports sponsorship opportunities from a conference and national perspective.”

The NCAA requires at least six teams participating in a sanctioned sport for a conference to become eligible for an automatic tournament berth. There has been no indication that a sixth NEC school is prepared to add women’s polo, though speculation has centered on Bryant University in Rhode Island as a possible next program for expansion.

Mount St. Mary’s: No Longer Just Phelan’s School

For the Mount, the growth of their varsity programs continues a period of athletic expansion for a university primarily known for the legendary exploits of men’s basketball coach Jim Phelan. One of the most successful coaches in Eastern basketball history, over a 49-year career in Emmitsburg, Maryland, Phelan amassed 850 wins, including 18 NCAA tournament appearances. A member of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, The Northeast Conference Coach of the Year award is named for Phelan.

Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball has been back to the NCAA DI men’s tournament twice since Phalen retired in 2003; in 2008 under Coach Milan Brown and in 2017 behind Coach Jamion Christian. This is in addition to success in men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s track and field and women’s tennis.

According to Friday’s statement, Mount St. Mary’s intends to continue expanding Division I athletic opportunities.  In addition to water polo, the Mount has added men’s swimming and diving (2016-17), women’s rugby (2017-18) and women’s bowling (2018-19), as well as the reinstatement of the men’s soccer and men’s and women’s golf programs in 2018-19.

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