In Thrilling Finish to Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Final, George Washington Tops Bucknell in OT

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George Washington Colonials take victory dip after winning 2018 Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference Title. Photo Courtesy: Gloria Kushel

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

THE BRONX, NY. For almost 32 minutes, the Bucknell and George Washington men’s water polo teams had traded goals and blows, fouls and frustration in Sunday’s 2018 Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference title match. Now, with seconds remaining and the two teams locked in an eight-all tie, spectators in the packed stands at Fordham’s Colonel Francis B. Messmore Aquatic Center held their collective breaths: Bison fans anxious for a winning goal; Colonial faithful praying their boys hold on and force overtime.

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A scrum for the ball five-meter dead center in front of the GW goal looked to be a turnover claimed by the defending Colonials. But a hasty shovel pass found its way to the most dangerous player in the water: Bucknell’s Rade Joksimovic. The three-time MAWPC most valuable player (2016, 2017 and 2018) grabbed the errant pass and in one fluid motion gave shape to Colonial fans greatest fears: a laser-like shot that slammed into the net behind goalie Austin Pyrch. As the navy and orange-clad Bison fans roared in approval, Rade (like the greatest athletes, only one name needed) roared back.

Bucknell 9, George Washington 8, eight seconds to go. At that moment, a Bison NCAA berth felt as certain as anything in sports can be.

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GW’s Atakan Destici and Bucknell’s Rade Joksimovic. Photo Courtesy: CWPA

Except, it wasn’t. In one of the more memorable finishes in the four-decade history of eastern men’s water polo championships, the underdog Colonials regrouped and responded. Atakan Destici, who all game had hounded and frustrated Rade, gathered in a pass from Zach Slaughter, deked, pumped, then unleashed a game-tying goal just seconds ahead of the final buzzer. Fans of both teams were momentarily paralyzed; GW supporters overcome with joy, the Bucknell faithful shocked to silence.

Overtime saw an energized Colonial squad ride the broad shoulders of center Andrew Mavis, who scored once in each extra period. His final goal with 36 seconds left proved to be insurmountable—and sealed GW’s second-straight trip to the NCAA men’s water polo tournament.

“How fitting was the last eight seconds of [regulation], where their all-world player scores to gets [them ahead], then our all-world player scores to even it,” Colonials Head Coach Barry King said after the match. “I imagine that was a lot of fun to watch.”

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Only friendly OUT of the pool. Photo Courtesy: M.Randazzo

It depends on where you sat; up in the stands, the Colonials’ loudest fan was overcome by emotion. Patrick Kerwin—whose son Jack put GW up by two goals midway through the third period—was (almost) at a loss for words. With his wife Theresa, daughter Jenny and son-in-law Austin all watching perhaps the most exciting game of their lives, Kerwin was a vocal presence for his son and teammates.

“It’s a wonderful feeling going out like this,” a hoarse but happy Kerwin said as the GW players took a victory lap. “These boys have struggled all year. But they kept fighting.”

Then, acknowledging the coach’s impact over two years at the Colonials’ helm, he added that King is a: “Good, tough coach. The players respect him and he earns respect from them. It’s a win-win.”

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A Battle Royale at Fordham for an NCAA berth. Photo Courtesy: Gloria Kushel

The match started off well for the #2 seed. George Washington jumped to an early 2 goal lead on scores from Nick Schroeder and Andras Levai in the first four minutes. But Bucknell, the tournament’s top seed that over the last three years had lost only three times to MAWPC foes, responded with four straight tallies. A Cooper Dolan goal at 3:52 of the first, then Jack Lewis on back-to-back power play opportunities, followed by another long strike by Dolan two minutes into the second period, gave the Bison a 4-2 advantage.

Then it was the Colonial’s turn to score in bunches;Slaughter notched a power play goal half-way through the period, then Levai squeezed a shot past Bison goalie Jack Otto to knot the score at four. With less than a minute remaining in the second period, Destici beat Otto to put GW up by 5-4 at intermission. When Kerwin scored four minutes into the third, the Colonial faithful were riding high.

But not for long. Rade, held in check by Destici’s persistent defense, converted on a 5-meter penalty. Logan Schofield, who earlier in the period had muffed a perfectly placed pass in front of the Colonial cage, didn’t miss at the 1:52 mark, slamming home a pass in front to knot the score at six. But Josh Yardley untied it 30 seconds later, slipping in a shot from the weak side that fooled Otto.

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A Rade strike – into the teeth of the Colonial defence. Photo Courtesy: Gloria Kushel

The Colonial lead didn’t last for long; Jared Stanley snapped a shot past the Pyrch 30 seconds into the final period, pulling Bucknell even. Rade was starting to heat up; he fired a bullet that Pyrch squeezed to close out the third period and another that hit the post two minutes into the fourth.

King pointed out that no matter what you do, the Bison’s best player will get his chances.

“Rade’s so hard to handle,” he said. “He’s opportunistic, and when he does get the opportunity he finishes like a monster.”

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GW: first in the MAWPC, again! Photo Courtesy: Gloria Kushel

Concurrently, the GW offense had gone cold, especially Mavis who the night before was unstoppable against Wagner with six goals. Finally, with less than four minutes to go, a perfectly placed pass allowed Mavis to convert from in front of the Bison cage, breaking a seven-all tie. But Bucknell answered immediately; with the man advantage Stanley equalized with a weak side shot. Then, as the seconds ticked down, all was in place for a fantastic and unforgettable finish—which Rade and Destici authored and Mavis then completed.

Otto was a gracious in defeat as he was magnificent—19 saves—during the game.

“It was an exciting game, we played as hard as we could,” he said, then shifted to the future. “It was really tough to go out that way but we’re excited to see where we go next year.”

For the winners, there’s more season yet to play. The Colonials have a date Sunday at 1 p.m. in New Jersey against Princeton, who upset top-seeded Harvard 12-10 earlier Sunday at the Northeast Water Polo Conference championship match. The winner moves on to the next rung of the NCAA ladder; a match against defending champions UCLA.

No matter what happens Saturday against the Tigers, for King the memories of this game will last a lifetime.

“To be a participant in a contest like that,” he said, “you just can’t ask for anything more.”