East Coast Women’s Water Polo Report: 2020 Bruno Classic Select Quotes

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Brown's Carissa Perez and Felix Mercado with LIU's Gabby Juarez at the 2020 Bruno Classic. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

PROVIDENCE, RI. The 2020 Bruno Women’s Water Polo Classic, held over a week ago at Brown University’s Kathryn Graham Aquatics Center, was the first major tournament in the East. Nine other teams joined the host Bears for three days of play; the Classic marked the start of play for a couple of prominent programs, including #15 Harvard and #23 Bucknell.

[These Sharks Have Bite! LIU Wins First-Ever Match at 2020 Bruno Women’s Water Polo Classic]

The weekend also featured a couple of first for coaches and programs in the Northeast. Alex Williams, who last year was an assistant to Brian Kelly, Iona head men’s and women’s coach , got his first taste of completion as a head coach, and got his first-ever win leading a Division I program when his Siena Saints beat Austin College 16-13 on Saturday.

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LIU first game ball. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

A double first was in store for Gabby Juarez, the new head coach for the Long Island University program, which on February 1st played its first-ever match in program history. It was a 10-6 loss to the host Bears; in their next match the Sharks got a win; also against Austin, which they beat 12-4.

This was just a few of the thread-lines that were noteworthy at the Bruno Classic, a reputable tournament put on by Brown Head Coach Felix Mercado, that was an ideal kick-off to the 2020 season on the East Coast.

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Swimming World spoke with Williams right after his first-ever win. A product of the West Coast, the San Diego native has a good sense of what it will take to win in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

– I know it’s a game at a time. But the goal is to get to your conference playoffs. How do you see your team progressing this season?

We really don’t talk about it, to be honest—maybe once or twice, just to give them a north star to aim for. But like I said, our approach is to be present in the moment. We can’t win or get into a top four position by wishing it into existence. We have to learn to play good water polo and have basic skills in place.

If it happens, that’s great, but it’s because we’ve mastered our habits and we play well as a team. I mean, everybody wants to win, but who wants to do the work to do it? We’re doing the work right now.

[On The Record with Alex Williams, Siena Women’s Water Polo New Head Coach]

***

To win in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), you’ve got to stop Wagner—something no conference team has accomplished in 57-straight MAAC matches. The last time the Seahawks lost to a MAAC  foe was April of 2015, when Marist beat them.

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Valeria Rojas and Sofia Diaz Alvarez. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Last season they were pinned with a forfeit loss in conference play, technically ending their streak. But no MAAC foes has beat them in the water, and Sofia Diaz Alvarez, the Seahawks’ sophomore attacker, will see to it that her team remains in the hunt for a seventh-straight conference title.

– With Ciaran Wolohan as your new coach, how will the Seahawks do in MAAC play this season?

This year we will be fine because our freshmen are really good—for example, Valeria [Rojas] is on the Canadian national team. Abby [Simshauser] and Skye [Nankervis] are from Australia and are really strong.

The most important thing is we play together in the water as a team.

[On Deck With Sofia Diaz Alvarez of Wagner Women’s Water Polo]

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Brown’s Felix Mercado has been launching programs at this and his men’s invitational the past three years, including the Wagner, McKendree and Austin men’s first-ever matches. Given the growth of polo at the collegiate level, every year at the Bruno Classic there seems to be a new program to watch; this year it was the Sharks of Long Island University, and their head coach, Gabby Juarez, who was recruited by Mercado to join the Bears.

When I first found out that [Juarez] was hired, I reached out to her and told her: whatever she needs, I’m here.

She’s shown in a short period of time that she’s not afraid to recruit. She’s got a great freshman class; she’s signed 3 – 4 athletes that I was recruiting. In a short [period of time] she’s going to be bringing in some great athletes.

From what I saw today, she has them playing well so early in their first-game ever.

They’re in great hands and I’m really excited to see what she does.

– Given your tenure at Brown and your leadership at the Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches, you’re in a position to effect positive change for the sport.

I was fortunate that the right people in my life helped me to get where I am—so I feel like I have to pay it forward. For me, it should never be that I helped Mark Lawrence or somebody else. That’s what we’re here for.

There’s a lot of coaches in this country that give back. I’m fortunate to be in an institution that allows me to do this. Brown’s been great about supporting my mindset and what I believe in.

[Brown’s Felix Mercado and Pomona-Pitzer’s Alex Rodriguez: Growing Water Polo]

 ***

Lawrence, one of Mercado’s protégés, was in Providence with his Austin women’s team. It was a bumpy start for the Kangaroos, who were well supported in an 0-5 weekend by an enthusiastic gallery of parents. There’s much bigger news in store for Lawrence and his programs, as Texas has approved high school water polo as a championship sport starting next year. The impact of this decision on Austin College’s polo fortunes will be decisive.

We’re really excited about what we’re doing at Austin College—the combination of us and high school being adopted as a varsity sport in Texas, which is going to create some great momentum going forward. Once we have it as an official high school sport, colleges will look at it and realize this is something they can invest in.

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Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Hopefully in four or five years we’re going to see a DIII conference in Texas, or three or four schools joining an outside conference—we’re going to have multiple programs in Texas. As soon as we get two we’ll eventually have four and it will just keep growing.

The support we’re getting from other universities is amazing. We’ve had schools reach out to us and [ask]: what are you doing and how are you doing it? How are you getting kids from coast to coast?

There’s great momentum forward and UIL’s part of that. It shows colleges that the youth level is invested in the sport.

As a kid in California where water polo was growing as it is in Texas, you saw resistance from swimming [coaches] at first. Over time they realized that there’s always athletes who will excel at both.

[The UIL Has Approved High School Water Polo in Texas. Now What?]

What I hope will happen in Texas is that swim organizations will see that there’s a great value in [having] dual sport athletes as part of their organization.

The idea of a US aquatics club offering hardcore swimming and hardcore water polo—offering a blend of the two to athletes who don’t want to commit to one—is not only great for growth. These clubs should look at this from a selfish point of view as great financially.

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What made this year’s Bruno Classic noteworthy is that two West Coast teams—both from the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) made the trip east. Swimming World spoke with Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Head Coach Greg Lonzo about what made the trip across the country worthwhile.

– Why would a West Coast team open its season in the East?

It’s a bonding opportunity as a team early in the season when we’re trying to incorporate our new freshmen, our new players. It gives us a chance to get to know everybody really well, spend all that extra time with each other, and grow as a team.

[On The Record with Greg Lonzo, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach]

And, we get the opportunity to play games against teams we don’t see on a usual basis. They’re different from us, so we have to make adjustments and play different styles. For us, that’s a lot of growth athletically; to be learning to play a different style within a game, and then having to adjust to the next team—a team that we’ve only watched play, and we’re trying to game plan for them. Whereas at home, we know those teams, we know what they’re bringing. [and] change the style that we play. In a month from now we’ll see where that return come, because we get to be a little more dynamic when we’re out here, we get to challenge them a little bit more, and do some things that we wouldn’t be doing at home right now.

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Yvonne Burke (lower right) brought 13 folks for her daughter Ally’s first-ever match with Whittier. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Yvonne Burke and 13 relatives traveled from all over the country to see Yvonne’s daughter Ally play her first-ever water polo match for Whittier, which was against Harvard.

We’re here to support Ally, to support Whittier—first game in college!

– Why Whittier?

Good school, great scholarship, good water polo team, close to home. She loves the coach [David Kasa], loves the team, she’s learning a lot, she’s excited to be there.

– Why water polo?

She’s been playing since she was 10, she loves the game… she just wanted to play!

***

Gabby Juarez and Carissa Perez are onetime teammates from the Commerce Water Polo Club, met again on opposite sides of the pool deck at the recent Bruno Classic. They had faced each other in the fall, when Long Island University traveled to Harvard for a scrimmage against other Northeast women’s water polo programs. It was a loss in the fall as well as at the Classic, but the Sharks have apparently improved by leaps and bounds given that first-ever competition.

– You know each other because of the Commerce connection.

Juarez: A tiny but because I was an 18-under—we didn’t know each other super well! [Carissa] was a 12-under and I’d see her across the pool deck.

Carissa: There were a couple of occasions when I went to a tournament and played [but] there was only one opportunity that I ever got to play with Gabby. It was always that I knew who she was and she knew who I was. She was a great center.

– Now one of your former teammates is the head coach at a DI program.

Perez: I’m extremely happy to see that programs are advancing to the East Coast and especially that—like Coach Gabby said, we played them in the fall. They did well but they were a completely different team today. They were much faster and made reads that were there.

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Ally Burke (#13) in action. Photo Courtesy: Jeanie Wahl

The overall program that they’re establishing is showing how water polo can grow in the East. I’m excited to see what other programs can develop.

– Is the lure of a city like New York inducement for talented players from Commerce?

Juarez: Being in Brooklyn is a huge pull—that’s the reason why we have the team that we have. We have a lot of talented players—they’re freshmen—and the pull is the city.

Carissa, one of the pluses of an Ivy League institution is that you get to connect with work opportunities in Boston and New York City.

Perez: I was hesitant to come to the East Coast simply because I had never been away from home. Once I saw the opportunity arise to further my education, especially at an Ivy League institution, I knew that I would graduate with education. Unfortunately, I/m not going to be able to play water polo my entire life.

Being able to come out here and be at a really great water polo program is a plus, but I’m excited that Brown offers so many different networking opportunities—I’m glad I can take advantage of [that].

– Given your respective successes, you two may be at the vanguard of what could be more Commerce athletes coming East.

Perez: Of course, it was an adjustment to be away from home my first year. But Felix has done a great job of helping me adjust. I have great teammates, and it’s really just about getting past that first semester and adjusting to the environment.

But it gets easier, and I definitely would recommend it to the rest of my teammates back home.

– For LIU, it’s a tough road ahead for a new program.

Juarez: We’re definitely taking it one game at a time. We progress over the tournament but we progress within games. This game showed that. The first half we held [them]; the third quarter got away from us but we got back in it [in the fourth].

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And there was the Sharks themselves, who may have lost to Brown 10-6, but acquitted themselves very well in their first-ever varsity water polo match. Two of the LIU players are from Canada; attacker Jessica Dean and goalie Julia Zebak, and they were excited for the experience even if the win took a game longer.

[LIU Plays First Ever Match, Siena’s Williams Get First Win at 2020 Bruno Women’s Water Polo Classic at Brown]

Dean – I am really grateful for having [a scrimmage at Harvard in the fall] because it gave us practice and experience before this tournament, and it was really helpful playing this team again because we know who their shooters are and how they play.

Our team was a little nervous for their first game, but they played so well together—you could tell that we started to click. We got a rhythm to our offense, so I’m excited for our next games.

LIU Women’s Water Polo vs Brown University. - Photo By: KEITH NORDSTROM

Sharks assemble! Photo Courtesy: Kieth Nordstrom

I think our team is unbelievably talented. What really awesome is we have talent from all over the world. We’ll get stronger and stronger and improve dramatically.

Zebak – Honestly, the game itself was incredible. Every quarter our team got better and better. We got to know each other better and work out some kinks.

When you’re starting out, you have to learn the players around you and learn to work together with them. So, it more accommodating them then me telling them what to do. For me, water polo is similar to a chess game; the goalie gets to tell which players to go where. At the end of the day, we all do whatever we can to win the game.

I think a lot of people underestimate us as a team, because we’re a new program and we haven’t had any experience in this league yet. Some teams may assume that the games against us will be really easy.

That’s what I look forward to this season—to cause a bit of an upset and surprise everyone.

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