Austin College Men’s Water Polo: New Kid in Town Is Now a Winner

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Austin College goalie Andrew Pomier in action. Photo Courtesy: Austin College Athletics

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

They had been losing all season—all eight weeks of it—and will lose more times before season’s end. But, on one of those occasions that participants bask in long after it passes, the Austin College Kangaroos—or ‘Roos, as they’re affectionately known in their hometown of Sherman, Texas—found deep satisfaction. The newly launched men’s water polo team, the only such program in the entire state of Texas, had come north to play in the 2018 Division III Eastern Championship tourney at the Newton White Aquatic Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

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They were facing, on this Sunday afternoon in October, fellow DIII program Monmouth College of Illinois. As it happened, the Scots were similarly winless, with a woeful 0-7 record at that point in the season, so someone’s losing streak would end. A distinction, of course, was that Austin College had never won an NCAA varsity game, after dropping all nine of its matches by such scores as 18-6 and 16-7—some against tough Division I opponents the likes of Brown and Harvard. Monmouth, on the other hand, is in its sixth season of competition.

‘Roo fans Lorie Henninger and Bill Griffin of Seabrook, Texas were in the stands, anxiously watching their son Robert, a strapping 6-4 defender, as the team’s best opportunity for a first-ever win appeared to be slipping down the Johns Hopkins drains. With his team trailing by two entering the fourth period, Robert took matters into his own hands. The Kangaroo sophomore hit on four straight shots to set the stage for teammate Andrew Pope’s heroics: a successful penalty shot with eight seconds left to give Austin a 16-15 over the Scots.

“We were down going into the fourth,” Griffin explained after the match. “I wasn’t playing well earlier—my shoulders were tight and my back was hurting a bit. I saw the scoreboard and thought: Someone has to step up. So I did.”

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Mark Lawrence. Photo Courtesy: Austin College Athletics

Mark Lawrence, the Kangaroos’ head coach, was complimentary of his star performer—and remarkably composed after the first of what he hopes will be many wins for his new program.

“Kudos to Griffin…,” he said in admiration. “[F]ive goals in the second half and four straight in the fourth quarter…. In this game, the momentum was so extreme; for our guys to stay composed in deep water and wait for the game to come to them.”

Pope, whose game-winner was only one of his five goals on the day, was enthusiastic about prospects for Texas water polo: “It’s awesome seeing the sport spreading down to Texas,” he said. “It’s cool to come out to the East Coast and show that Texas has water polo too.”

In the exuberance of the moment, Pope, the Kangaroos’ leading scorer (22 goals) who grew up playing lacrosse, could be excused for engaging in what is likely a flight of fancy: “I want to see [Texas] A & M, UT [University of Texas at Austin] add varsity programs and see the sport grow—make it like football, have games on prime-time TV on Saturday nights.”

Great Expectations?

The Baltimore setting for Austin’s first win seemed appropriate; Johns Hopkins is a DIII program that regularly punches above its weight class by competing against the top DI programs in the East. It’s now bordering on old news, but in 2015, Ted Bresnahan’s Blue Jays pushed mighty Princeton to the limit before dropping a 7-6 decision in the Collegiate Water Polo Association men’s championship match. A win would have sent Hopkins to its first-ever NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament.

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Andrew Pope lining up a shot. Photo Courtesy: Austin College Athletics

A more realistic goal for Lawrence’s program would be to realize the type of success that the Blue Jays currently enjoy—annually one of the top country’s DIII programs and a magnet for talented polo players from all over the country.

Key to Austin’s future in the sport is backing and encouragement from parents like Henninger and Griffin, who traveled 1,500 miles to cheer on their son and his teammates in Baltimore.

“We’re here to support the ‘Roos inaugural year of NCAA water polo—the first time they’re playing NCAA in 42 years,” Lorie Henninger boasted. “We support them and we’re excited for Texas.”

Going Henninger a few trips better is Lena Skinner, whose son Brett is a freshman attacker for Austin. A flight attendant, she has made it to all of the Kangaroos’ matches, including visits to Providence, Boston, Houston, Washington D.C., and now Baltimore.

When reminded there would be bumps and bruises along the way to success, Skinner was not intimidated.

“We’re gonna cheer through all of them!” she replied. “I’m so excited for them. This is their inaugural season and they’re trying so hard, so this win means a lot to the entire team. And the team plays so well together.”

Oct 14, 2018; Baltimore, MD, USA; Monmouth Fighting Scots center Jesus Aguirre (21) fires a shot as Austin College 'Roos center Alex Rodriguez (8) and attacker Andrew Pope (2) apply pressure at the Newton White Athletic Center Natatorium. Greg Bartram/betterImage

Monmouth’s Jesus Aguirre fights off Austin’s Alex Rodriguez (8) and Andrew Pope (2). Photo Courtesy: Greg Bartram

Leave it to Coach Lawrence—who has had his own interesting journey through NCAA varsity polo, from a Final Four appearance and third-place finish in the 2002 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament, to stints as an assistant at Brown and Navy, with a brief tenure as MIT’s head coach (dates?)—to put things in perspective.

“The first half of our season up until [this tournament], we were playing against extremely talented Division III teams and nationally ranked DI teams,” he said. “We wanted an education through experience—which is great for our young players. But there’s a downside to that when you constantly lose and get your score doubled.”

Luckily, there’s enough competition around for even a first-year program that desperately needed a win.

“This weekend we played against teams that are a little more experienced, but they’re at our level,” Lawrence added. “They were great, competitive games and our guys finally got to see the fruits of all their hard labor.“

With Chip Brenner