Bears, Crimson Perfect at Harvard Invitational but Sage Hens of Pomona-Pitzer are Big Winners

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Dennis Blayshov is just one of many reasons that Harvard is undefeated two months into the 2019 season. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

CAMBRIDGE, MA. On a perfect weekend for two Ivy League water polo programs, it was Pomona-Pitzer that proved its championship mettle at the fourth annual Harvard Invitational. The Sage Hens easily handled La Salle and bested DIII rival MIT on Day Two of competition. But it was their performance on Saturday, when a couple of missed shots were the difference between Harvard—at a sparkling 18-0, the nation’s only unbeaten squad—and PP, affirming Head Coach Alex Rodriguez’s squad are one of the nation’s best, and favorites for the inaugural National DIII championship.

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Cecil the Sage Hen

With wins over Bucknell and La Salle, the host Crimson completed a sweep of all its competition at Blodgett Pool. A surprisingly easy 16-10 win over #15 ranked George Washington gave Brown a 4-0 record for the weekend, extending a modest five-match winning streak.

Other clear winners were St. Francis Brooklyn, which fell two goals short of a perfect weekend, and MIT which—despite suffering three losses on the weekend—demonstrated enough ability that they should be a favorite at next weekend’s Collegiate Water Polo Association DIII Eastern Championship.

Harvard staves off all challengers

The days marquee match-up was the host Crimson and a Bucknell squad that has been anything but consistent in producing a 14-3 record. The Bison, ranked 14th in the latest CWPA varsity poll, were coming off a disappointing loss to St. Francis on Saturday, when they squandered all of a five-goal lead in a 16-14 loss.

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Harvard’s Ted Minnis and Brown’s Felix Mercado. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

On Sunday morning they apparently shook off any lingering disappointment. Cullen Jacuzzi and Logan Schofield put the visitors up 2-0. When Rade Joksimovic beat Harvard goalie Noah Hodge with a half-tank shot as the period ended, the Bucknell fans in the stands were ecstatic.

Their collective joy was fleeting. Alex Tsotadze got the home team on the board with a blast from five meters that beat Bucknell goalie Adrien Touzot. The freshman goalie, who’s home is listed as Beirut, Lebanon, has apparently supplanted Jack Otto as Bucknell Coach Jack McBride’s top choice in goal, and it’s clear why. Not only is he active defending his cage, Touzot is animated in a way that the best goalies are, gesturing after a big save or barking out directions to his teammates.

[Host Crimson Remain Unbeaten; St. Francis Enjoys Big Comeback @ Day One of Harvard Invitational]

Jack Lewis extended the visitor’s advantage to 4 – 1, beating Hodge with Bucknell a man-up, but Dennis Blayshov beat both Touzot and the buzzer with a lob, leaving the home team down two at intermission. Harvard scored first in the third, part of a three-goal burst that underscored why Head Coach Ted Minnis’ squad is worthy of their record. Jackson Enright scored from long-distance half-way through the period, then Kaleb Archer tied it at four-all, converting a great feed from Blayshov to beat Touzot in front. When Tsotadze scooped in a rebound with two minutes left, Harvard led for the first time.

Cooper Dolan answered back to even the score at five; Harvard’s Austin Sechrest converted a tip in front to put his team ahead again, then Joksimovic scored from within three meters with seconds left on the clock to make it 6-all—the last time Bucknell would be even.

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Harvard’s Alex Tsotadze. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

Scores by Charlie Owens and Enright midway through the fourth gave Harvard its first two goal lead; Jared Stanley would twice beat Hodge from his weak side, but the Bison could not draw even. As he did in a win Saturday against George Washington, Bruno Snow saved his best for last, scoring on a back hand shot with 3:28 remaining that just trickled over the Bucknell goal.

Nursing a 9-8 lead, Hodge and his defenders dug in to stop Joksimovic, and they succeeded. The Harvard goalie stopped a Rade blast with a minute and a half remaining, then Sechrest field blocked the Serbian sensation on the Bison’s next possession. With six seconds left, the visitors had one final shot; everyone in the stands assumed Joksimovic would take it, but the match’s final attempt was taken Stanley—and it sailed wide, giving Harvard a 9-8 win.

[Winning is Contagious: Ted Minnis and Charlie Owens of Harvard Men’s Water Polo]

The home team would complete a perfect weekend with an 18-4 win over La Salle. The Explorers were winless on the weekend, but they on Saturday were tough on Brown, opening up an early lead and being down a single score at halftime. A three-goal burst gave the Bears an insurmountable four-goal lead midway through the third period, and they cruised to an 11-8 win.

After wins against Wagner on Friday, and then against the Explorers and Pomona-Pitzer on Saturday, only George Washington stood in the way of a perfect weekend for Felix Mercado’s squad, who scored a decisive win. It’s possible that the Colonials—who survived a tough St. Francis squad in an early morning win—ran out of gas in the third, when the Bears rang up six goals to turn a two-goal game into a rout. No matter how it was achieved, Brown (14-8; 2-3 NWPC) is on the rise at the right time; next weekend they’ll be out in Santa Clara for four matches in the Julian Fraser Memorial Tournament.

Wither the noble Sage Hen?

It has not been the easiest season for Pomona-Pitzer. Dominick Nevarez, a transfer from Cal Baptist, has transformed the attack of Whittier who are the Sage Hens’ primary rival for supremacy in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC). The Poets have already pinned a conference loss on Pomona-Pitzer—as has Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.

The increased competition is both a response to the recent success Rodriguez’s program has enjoyed—three straight SCIAC men’s titles—and also the arrival of a national DIII championship on December 7 and 8 in California. The conference’s top team will host, and the two teams that advance to the SCIAC championship final will automatically be including in one half of the Final Four for the tournament. The other half will be determined next weekend, when all the DIII teams outside of California will gather at Washington and Jefferson in Western Pennsylvania to determine the other two Final Four participants.

While nothing is certain, one of the top contenders for the CWPA DIII Eastern Championship will be MIT. Experiencing a revival the past two years, including this year, where the Engineers are a respectable 7-8, Head Coach Austin Ringheim saw his team push Bucknell and George Washington around this weekend before losing, take a second win this season over Wagner and then drop a 10-4 decision to Pomona-Pitzer. As the only other DIII in the Blodgett Pool this weekend, the ease with which the Sage Hens handled the Engineers was instructive.

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

But not has impressive as a 17-16 loss on Saturday to Harvard, which had to weather numerous comebacks before finally subduing Pomona-Pitzer in sudden-death overtime. Perhaps the most noteworthy highlight of many in a highly entertaining match was Sam Sasaki missing a five-meter penalty shot—and his twin brother Ben swooping in to force Hodge to commit a ball-under penalty. Sam then got the tying goal on a successful penalty shot to knot the score at 16 at the end of the second overtime period.

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Team Sasaki: Jennifer (mom), Ben, Noah, Sam and Russ (dad). Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Rodriguez and his squad return to Pomona, and may take comfort in more than a Pyrrhic victory at Blodgett; for his young squad the performance this weekend will almost certainly strengthen their resolve as they navigate the unfamiliar postseason waters presented by the new DIII championship.

SCIAC forfeits NCAA play-in berth

Even though details are yet to be finalized, one significant decision is certain: the SCIAC champion will not advance to the 2019 NCAA Water Polo Championship. This means that one of two play-in games will be eliminated; it’s virtually certain that the NWPC and MAWPC will meet to determine a quarterfinalist from the East. This means that the match between the SCIAC champion and either the Golden Coast Conference or Western Water Polo Association winners will be eliminated.

There’s logic in having the strongest DIII conference in the country supporting a new DIII championship. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of one of the unique features of NCAA men’s water polo competition; that historically strong DIII programs like Johns Hopkins, MIT, Pomona-Pitzer, Whittier and others will likely not be given an opportunity to measure their worth against the country’s best teams. As of now, Hopkins and MIT have retained the right to play for an NCAA berth by winning their respective conferences. This is clearly a long-shot for both teams.

The rest of the Harvard Invite participants; mixed results

St. Francis (14-6; 3-2 NWPC) dropped a 9-8 decision to George Washington in a sloppy match for both teams. The Terriers ended up with three wins on the weekend when they beat Wagner 15-7 on Sunday afternoon. The Seahawks continue to struggle this season; they dropped all four matches this weekend and are suffering through an eight-match losing streak in a season that will not get easier, with five straight conference matches before the MAWPC championship in Lewisburg, PA.

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MIT’s Austin Ringhaim and Pomona-Pitzer’s Alex Rodriguez. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Bucknell (14-4; 6-1 MAWPC) was a net-loser this weekend; a likely win against St. Francis turned into an ugly loss, and the Bison’s upset bid against Harvard came up empty. Two wins seems like one too few for a squad with experienced attackers Joksimovic, Schofield, Dolan and freshmen sensations Touzot and Andu Vlasceanu. Perhaps a trip to Santa Clara for the Fraser Memorial tournament could not come at a better time, though the Bison open Saturday against a tough Loyola Marymount side.

George Washington (16-6, 5-1 MAWPC) had a split of four games at the Invite; the slight difference between MAWPC rivals is that the Colonials welcomed top player Atakan Destici back after a six-week break. GW produced 11 wins during his absence, including victories over #16 Fordham, #18 Princeton and Brown.

[On Deck With Barry King, George Washington Water Polo Coach]

La Salle (6-7; 1-8 MAWPC) is clearly a work in progress; excluding the three-goal loss to Brown, the Explorers were outscored 49-10. Still, the impact of Head Coach Tom Hyham, now in his second season in Philadelphia, is evident. Not only did Hyham’s team shock Navy 10-8 last weekend in Annapolis, a one-goal loss to Hopkins the following day came two weeks after La Salle lost by ten to the Blue Jays.

With three straight MAWPC matches to close out the regular season, the Explorers have already equaled the best win total—six—in program history. Not that getting a seventh win will be easy, but it’s likely one of their matches in the postseason will offer an opportunity to continue the program’s upward climb.

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