Bison Ride Roughshod Over Undefeated Harvard in NCAA Men’s Water Polo Contest

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Bucknell's Logan Schofield was a difference-maker as the Bison ended Harvard's run to a perfect season. Photo Courtesy: Rob Dolan

CAMBRIDGE, MA. Saturday in Blodgett Pool, plucky Bucknell and host Harvard competed in a winner take-all match, in this case a play-in game for the 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament. It ended as a most memorable day in recent Bucknell men’s water polo—and one most devastating for Harvard, seeking to extend a program-record win streak. The undefeated Crimson (29-0) were heavily favored to advance to an NCAA quarterfinal for the third time in the last four years. Instead, it was the determined Bison (23-8), riding the endurance of starters who never left the water, that wore down the East’s best team and captured a stunning 13-12 victory.

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It’s the first time since 1985 that one of the East’s most storied programs won an NCAA match—a win that punched Bucknell’s ticket to Stockton, California for a match Thursday against defending champion USC.

What a difference a rematch makes…

A month ago, during the annual Harvard Invitational, these two teams met in the same pool. But that game—and its outcome—were very much different. After going three goals down in the first period, the Crimson won 9-8, as Bruno Snow hit the game-winner late in the match, one of a number of close escapes that kept the Harvard record unblemished.

[Twenty-seven and 0? Wow! But Harvard Men’s Water Polo Has More to Prove]

Saturday at Blodgett saw an offensive explosion early followed by a defensive struggle late. The two teams scored 20 goals in a first half that ended with the visitors up 11-9. Both teams adjusted, and after intermission only five goals, three by Harvard and two by Bucknell, were tallied.

It had been quickly established that Bucknell would not be intimidated by its opponent’s season-long success; nor would Rade Joksimovic and Logan Schofield, Bison stalwarts the last four years, be stopped by the Crimson. Joksimovic, who seems to feast on Harvard’s defense, had six goals in the first half Saturday to increase his season total to 137. (When Harvard beat Bucknell in a 2016 play-in game, it took sudden death overtime for Harvard Coach Ted Minnis’ squad to overcome six scores from Joksimovic.)

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There’s no stopping Rade Joksimovic. Photo Courtesy: Rob Dolan

Schofield and Joksimovic—often known simply by his first name—combined for five goals in the first period alone, all while attacking the heart of Harvard’s defense. Two of Rade’s three scores in the period came on successful five-meter conversions drawn on Crimson fouls in front of the net. The other was a wicked skip shot from seven meters with a defender draped all over him. After Rade successfully converted a five-meter penalty, on the next possession Schofield deftly released from his defender to score on a beautiful pass from Jared Stanley. The goal gave Bucknell an early 2-1 lead; Schofield also scored from two meters by scooping up a nifty rebound.

That Harvard managed a first-period lead at 6-5 was due to senior co-captain Charlie Owens, who scored three times, combining with Alex Tsotadze, Bennie Seybold and Kaleb Archer to put the home team on top. The second quarter however was a different story for the home team. Harvard scored first to take a two-goal advantage, but the Bison kept the pressure on Harvard keeper Noah Hodge. Rade had a picture-perfect drive in front of Hodge, then converted a brilliant pass to cut the Harvard lead in half. Cullen Jacuzzi showed great patience in waiting out Hodge for a score that tied the match at seven-all.

Michael Sonsini, tasked with covering Stanley and Jacuzzi on the wing, chipped in a goal at the five-minute mark, then Bucknell’s Andu Vlasceanu tied it again off a beautiful helper from Joksimovic. A drive and shot by Austin Sechrest at 2:42 made it 9-8 Harvard, which was to be the last time they led in the match. An explosion of three goals in three minutes by Joksimovic, Schofield and Rade again at the buzzer put Harvard down 11-9 at the half and posed the distinct possibility that the Crimson could be beaten.

Both defenses step up

Minnis and his Crimson troops put up a fight in a second half that turned into a defensive slog. On his team’s first possession in the third, Archer scored, popping up with the ball and beating Bucknell goalie Adrien Touzot in front. At 6:33, Bucknell drew another five-meter penalty, and, when keeper Hodge stopped Rade on the conversion attempt, it appeared that the game’s momentum had switched to the Crimson.

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Harvard’s Dennis Blyashov. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

But Dennis Blyashov, Harvard’s All-American sharpshooter, could not find his range, and when Stanley moved in on Hodge to convert in front with less than four minutes remaining, the home team was back where they were at the half: down two goals. And now the clock was becoming a factor.

One seeming advantage that Harvard had coming into the match was depth. Minnis’ deft recruiting had delivered not only All-Americans Blyashov and Sechrest, but a variety of talented supporting players who easily numbered two effective lines—so much so that Minnis didn’t start his top players to save wear and tear on them.

Bucknell possesses no such depth, but they nursed their slim lead with sheer determination. The core of Joksimovic, Vlasceanu, Schofield and Stanley stayed in the water almost the entire game; Rade and Vlasceanu—as good a player as any newcomer in the East—never left it. They had just enough stamina to hold off the Harvard attack, especially in the end, when the Crimson pressed desperately for an equalizer that never materialized.

[In the Heart of Trump Country, A Trio of Foreigners Power Bucknell Men’s Water Polo to Success]

Blyashov got Harvard within one early in the fourth period, but Cooper Dolan responded immediately to restore the two-goal difference. With less than two minutes remaining, Blyashov again cut his team’s deficit to a single score, but now it was the 6’6” goalie Touzot’s time to shine. With the clock winding down to one minute, he made a huge save on Enright in front.

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Adrien Touzot comes up big. Photo Courtesy: Bucknell Athletics

The Bucknell offense attempted to stall, but a quick turnover forced Touzot to stretch once more and stop a last gasp shot from Snow, the hero of the teams’ previous meeting. With 15 seconds remaining, the visitors played Keep Away, and, as the clock tick-tick-ticked down, a sense of disbelief dawned and grew—there would be no perfect season in Cambridge. As relentless as the Bucknell squad had been in pushing back the opponents, they now relished a celebratory dunk in the Crimson pool, a cathartic moment that none who were there will likely forget.

As it happened, Schofield proved to be the match’s pivotal player. The burly set from Maumee, Ohio repeatedly beat his defender in front of the Harvard net, scoring a hat trick and drawing one of four five-meter penalties called against the home team. He also played spectacular defense, drawing numerous offensive penalties and forcing Harvard to change its strategy, unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

[Bucknell Men’s Water Polo Head Coach John McBride on Winning the East in 2019]

“John McBride has a tactic for the zone,” Minnis said of his opposing coach. “They zoned us very well and they got their shot blocks rotated over.”

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A quiet celebration for Cooper Dolan. Photo Courtesy: Rob Dolan

Talking about how Harvard standouts Blyashov and Sechrest were stymied, Minnis added, “Dennis saw a lot of hands, [and] they rotated over to Austin….Hats off to them.” Blyashov was held to two late goals, and Sechrest had numerous scoring opportunities blocked by well-positioned Bucknell defenders.

[Harvard Water Polo’s Austin Sechrest: Maximum Effort Equals Unparalleled Success for Undefeated Crimson]

Following the match, a stoic McBride had little to add about the biggest victory in his eight years in Lewisburg, P-A. “It was a great game, the guys played well, we’re excited to go to California,” he said.

Yes, on to the big stage in California, where the Bison have not been in more than three decades.

For Harvard, with dreams of achieving perfection, it’s likely that those around the program will marvel at what occurred in 2019, a season like no other. They’ll remember the first 29 games, and forget the bitter taste of the last.

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