Fan in The Stands: A Smorgasbord of Water Polo, Brooklyn-Style

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The pool at the Kings Bay YM-YWHA in Brooklyn plays host to an age group water polo scrimmage on a Saturday afternoon. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Last Saturday Brooklyn—not known as a hot bed of water polo activity—was teeming with the sport, played at both the age group and collegiate levels.

Starting early in the morning, with the most important match of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) women’s regular season, and stretching until evening, with a development scrimmage for age group players in Sheepshead Bay, New York City’s most populous borough was alive with the joys of polo, despite a distinct limitation associated with Northeastern facilities: shallow-deep pools.

The MAAC’s most important game—played in the friendly confines of Brooklyn

For competition and cost efficiencies, each season on four separate dates all eight MAAC teams converge on one pool and spend two days packing in a full slate of conference play. Last weekend was St. Francis Brooklyn’s turn, and the Generoso Pope Athletic Center hosted six matches over two days.

As in years past, the MAAC is a two-team race between challenger Marist and five-time champion Wagner. The regular season has become a exercise in Seahawk perfection. Saturday’s match presented the Red Foxes a chance to not only leapfrog their rivals in the conference standings, but a prime opportunity to snap a Seahawks MAAC win streak that had ballooned to 51-straight.

Victimized in the past five MAAC finals—and losers of the last 12 meetings between the two teams—an 11-10 loss to Wagner last month at the LMU Invitational in Los Angeles suggested that Marist was closing the gap.

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St. Francis pool Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

That the two teams’ most meaningful regular season meet-up of 2019 would be at St. Francis Brooklyn is fitting. Built in 1974, the pool is accessible by a series of winding staircase four stories below the street—and will never be confused with the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla, which inspired the design of the main waiting room in the old Pennsylvania Station, demolished in 1963.

With a narrow 25-yard by 8 lane footprint, a shallow end that reaches a five-foot depth only by filling to the very top, and a rectangular volume that compresses both heat and sound, the home of  Terriers’ aquatics is as intimate a viewing environment as it is oppressive for those unfamiliar with distinctive Northeast conditions; shallow-deep indoor pools.

In short, an ideal venue for the Seahawks, who plays in an even tinier indoor pool in Staten Island.

Daniel Lizotte, whose daughter Myriam is a freshman, for Marist, had not been to St. Francis before—and therefore never experienced anything like the Terriers’ home pool. A native of Quebec, the effusive Lizotte agreed that the peculiar conditions were different—but better that the Seahawks’ configuration.

“This is very different than anything we have in Canada,” he said at halftime. “but I prefer this to Wagner.”

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Marist freshman Myriam Lizotte. Photo Courtesy: Marist Athletics

Lizotte acknowledged the significance of this early Saturday morning meeting. His daughter: “[K]new this would be a good challenge today. She’s ready and the team is ready for it,” he said, then added: “Now’s the time to win.”

On the other side of the bleachers, Shannon Wells, was seated amongst a handful of Wagner fans. Wells, whose daughter Mikaela is a freshman goalie for the Seahawks, agreed that this was the season’s most important match thus far, and admitted to being: “Very nervous… I’m hoping they can get it!”

From Lake Elsinore, California, roughly an hour’s drive due east from Los Angeles, she had never been to St. Francis before. Seemingly oblivious to the pool’s circumstances, Wells said that: “Marist is gonna come out hard; this is an important game for them too.,” but quickly added that her daughter’s team: “Have what they need—they just have to go after it.”

Which they did. A match that the Red Foxes led 6-5 with two minutes remaining in the half unraveled just before intermission. Wagner’s Sofia Alvarez, Kristy Donkin and Malia Josephson scored against goalie Carsen Horvatich, with Josephson scoring just three seconds before the half.

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Penn Station in undated photo. Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Marist rallied to tie early in the third period, but Wagner kept pace and led by two goals after three and four by the end. Grace Doerfler, the Red Foxes’ imposing set, scored twice but was mostly neutralized by the Wagner’s defense.

The convincing 16-12 win—the Seahawks’ 52nd straight conference victory—confirmed a prevailing theory: only a monumental upset in the MAAC title match two weeks from now will derail Wagner from an unprecedented sixth straight NCAA berth.

Sheepshead Bay offers aquatic opportunities and challenges

Nine miles south of St. Francis’ Brooklyn Heights location is Sheepshead Bay, home to the Kings Bay YM-YWHA, and the Y Pro boys’ water polo team. Like the Terriers’ pool, the Kings Bay aquatics facility is limited. At first glance, a four-lane pool with one end four feet deep does not seem feasible for polo—but the assembled youth players were oblivious to this. Y Pro’s development squad hosted the Brooklyn Hustle, a club from downtown Brooklyn whose roots trace back to St. Francis. Birthed almost forty years in the very same pool as the morning’s MAAC contest, the Hustle have gone through a number of coaching configuration, having recently been taken over by a pair of European coaches with extensive professional experience.

Bela Rex-Kiss won the 2001 Hungarian Cup as a member of Vasas SC in Budapest before a year-long stint playing for the Terriers. A New York City resident since 2002, for a number of years he has been the player coach for the Asphalt Green masters team as well as leading their youth polo program.

Rex-Kiss was solo on the Kings Bay pool deck Saturday because his fellow coach, Andrei Draghici, was shepherding a group of U12 players through a pair of scrimmages in Connecticut. A former Romanian junior national team player as well as pro with Rapid Bucuresti and Sportul Studestesc, since last May Draghici, along with Rex-Kiss, has provided a strong foundation of coaching experience for the approximately 70 Hustle members.

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Eager parents at King’s Bay YMHA. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Coaching Y Pro is Irakli Sanadze. A long-time coach for Y Pro, Sanadze is also a Collegiate Water Polo Association referee who travels up and down the East Coast refereeing NCAA varsity matches. With 12U and 14U teams, Y Pro has an excellent program that has produced Division I players but, most important, is very competitive against Northeastern opponents.

[On The Record with Eugene Prokhin, Head Coach for Y Pro Water Polo]

The players spread out in the “umbrella” formation and are ready. The quality of play is what might be expected from a group of 9, 10 and 11 year olds relatively new to the sport. There’s blown defensive assignments, select players wandering aimlessly in the pool—and exciting moments when a pint-sized nine-year-old for the Hustle repeatedly outswims his opponents for one-on-none breaks against the goalie.

With passion for polo both in and out of the pool, there’s plenty of joy to go around. A crowd of parents peering from over the balcony regularly whoop it up whenever their team scored, which is often.

There’s obviously no sunlight or fresh air, but—besides these qualities most associated with California polo—what’s the real the difference between Brooklyn and say, Newport Harbor? Wherever there’s a pool, a net and a ball, excitement will follow.

11 comments

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Ha! My bad! I changed the spelling in the title BUT won’t touch the URL (!). Clearly, I should do a SPELL CHECK first (but it is an odd word – which is why I like it…).

      Your correspondent

    • Amanda Napierski

      Kristian Ramkvist it’s like a big buffet. Different kinds f foods and lots of it.

      • avatar
        Michael Randazzo

        So, there’s a specific reference here, which folks from Brooklyn might pick up—there is the “Smorgasburg” in Williamsburg (I assume the misspelling reflects its location) which bills itself as: “the largest weekly open-air food market in America.” I could take the easy way out and say THAT’S why I misspelled “smörgåsbord” – but it was just lazy journalist thinking he knew what he knew… and NOT checking!

        Thank you for setting me straight—and now I feel like I better GO to a smörgåsbord so I don’t mess it up again (and it’s a word that’s sure to reappear…).

        Your correspondent

    • Amanda Napierski

      Kristian Ramkvist yeah. Without all those fancy keyboardy things you have going on there.

    • Amanda Napierski

      You totally just wanted to bust out your Swedish keyboard for that. Admit it.

  1. Roger Nekton

    Just wonderful to make “polo” happen

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Roger:

      Yes, you got that right (IMO)! I expect some California reader will take me to task for my ending thought, but the reality that polo can thrive in any condition is what I’m excited about. In the “full disclosure” mode, I was at the Y Pro pool six years ago and it was nothing like it is now (there was a major renovation); to see it filled with kids and excited parents was brilliant!

      Your correspondent

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