In Festive Opening to First-Ever DIII National Championship, Whittier and CMS Advance to Finals

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Hopkins' Emerson Sullivan fighting for position; his team fell to Claremont-Mudd-Scrips in one semifinal Saturday night. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

WHITTIER, CA. Saturday night in front of an energized standing room only crowd at Whittier College’s Lillian Slade Aquatic Center, the host Poets and their Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) rivals Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) both won over Eastern foes to advance to the first-ever DIII Collegiate Water Polo National Championship final.

In the opening semifinal, top-seeded Whittier overpowered MIT 12-8. In the nightcap, the Stags beat an undermanned Johns Hopkins squad, pulling away in the second half for a 14-11 victory.

USA Water Polo logo DIII National Championship

The wins set up an all-SCIAC final and a rematch from two weeks ago in the very same pool, when the Poets and Stags fought for their conference championship. In that contest, Whittier prevailed 13-12 to capture its first SCIAC title since 2014.

On the opening night of what may be the biggest new development for NCAA men’s water polo — because it represents future growth for the sport — SCIAC Commissioner Jen Dubow was delighted with the proceedings.

“The atmosphere is great, the stands are full — this is exactly the atmosphere we wanted for the student-athletes during the championship,” Dubow said. “It allows the sport as a whole to grow because they see what they can play for at the end of the season.”

In beating MIT in the team’s only meeting of this season, the Poets (20-18; 13-1 SCIAC) were led by Eric Borunda’s two goals and three assists. 2019 SCIAC Athlete of the Year Dominick Nevarez chipped in two scores, while goalie Murat Ersoz turned aside 14 Engineer shots.

[First-Ever DIII Collegiate National Men’s Water Polo Championship Opens Saturday at Whittier]

Whittier defeats MIT in the first semi-final of the Men's Division III National Championship held at the Lillian Slade Aquatics Center on the campus of Whittier College.

Whittier’s Cornelis Kriek playing to Poet fans. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

For Whittier Head Coach David Kasa, the win was gratifying but the goal remains the same: to win out the season and validate what has been an exceptional season for his deep and experienced squad.

“When I talked to these guys here, four and a half months ago, it’s been the goal from day one… we want to win a National Championship,” said Kasa, in his second season as Poet’s men’s and women’s coach.

“It started off with winning the SCIAC, winning the SCIAC Tournament, and then winning this [tournament]. This is our main goal of the season. And now we have an opportunity to play for a national championship.

“Super excited about it.”

Borunda, whose uncle also went to Whittier, is a product of local La Serna High School. This tournament, in front of friends, family and Poet faithful, could almost not be sweeter, because his team is both good and in sync.

“Offensively we had a lot of weapons, so we wanted to utilize all of them,” the sophomore attacker said after the match. “The key to this season was everyone knowing their role.

“The difference in this series is: we have a lot of great players, talented players,” he added, as evidence by Whittier’s balanced scoring. Seven different Poet’s scored Saturday.

Whittier defeats MIT in the first semi-final of the Men's Division III National Championship held at the Lillian Slade Aquatics Center on the campus of Whittier College.

Whittier’s Eric Borunda. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

MIT Head Coach Austin Ringheim was grateful for his program’s participation in this inaugural tournament, a collaboration between USA Water Polo, the SCIAC and the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA). But, after the game he struck a defiant note, saying that the Engineers will look to make this championship a regular destination.

“We wanted to make sure that we competed the entire time and gave it our all, Ringheim, who played at Whittier, said. “We want to make sure that we come out here and compete and we show the East Coast that we deserve to be here, and that we should be here competing year in and year out.”

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Miller Geschke delivered a game-high four goals for MIT (11-15; 2-8 NWPC), while goalie Hayden Niederreiter stopped two Whittier five-meter penalty attempts to keep his team in the game. It was for naught, as the host Poets scored five times in the second period on goals by Maxwell Murphy, Borunda, Hans Zdolsek, Ricardo Reyes and then Zdolsek again to build a 7-4 lead at intermission. Geschke delivered goals in the third and fourth periods to tease a large contingent of MIT fans that a comeback was possible, but Ersoz and the Whittier defense repeatedly frustrated their visitors.

Like his coach, the California-born Geschke was emphatic: the long trip west was not about Pyrrhic victory. On Sunday MIT has a chance to beat Hopkins and leave Whittier with a win.

Whittier defeats MIT in the first semi-final of the Men's Division III National Championship held at the Lillian Slade Aquatics Center on the campus of Whittier College.

MIT’s Miller Geschke looking to keep a chin up. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

“The goal is always to win,” he said. “We believe that we’re good enough. We didn’t play up to our expectations today, but we’re going to come out tomorrow take a third-place trophy — and show everyone that we absolutely deserve to be here.”

Stags are resilient in the nightcap

The second game presented two teams that had faced each other previously this season. Johns Hopkins, behind rookie goalie Max Fleming, had beaten CMS 9-8 in an October match at the Gary Troyer Memorial Tournament. And, for two quarters the teams were evenly matched. The first half ended with the Stags and the Blue Jays locked in a five-all tie.

The third quarter proved decisive for CMS (18-11; 11-3), whose home pool is a half-hour drive from Whittier. Hopkins (11-22; 3-9 MAWPC) came 2,500 miles to participate in this championship, and their lack of depth showed in the second half. Led by Will Clark, who had three steals in the period and  four in the game, the Stags generated numerous counter-attack opportunities. They scored five times in the third — Eric Weiner, Christian Thornton, Sam Harrison, Clark and Nick Britt — to break the game open. Goalie Noah Smith (15 saves) was brilliant in goal, repeatedly frustrating Hopkins’ shooters.

The Stags were led by Thornton’s three scores and two goals apiece from Zack Rossman, Sam Harrison and CJ Box. For the Blue Jays, Emerson Sullivan delivered a hat trick, while  Jayden Kunwar, Olin Shipstead and Stephen Schmidt each scored twice.

After the match, Stags Head Coach Greg Lonzo spoke about how his squad’s defensive pressure after intermission paid offensive dividends.

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CMS goalie Noah Smith was superb defending the Stags’ cage. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

“We tightened it up in the second half, the defense got better,” he said. “Noah did a great job adjusting to their shooters and making some really big saves for us.”

Then, explaining how his team likes to flow from defense to offense, Lonzo, now in his 13th year leading the CMS men’s and women’s coach, explained: “A lot of it’s built through the system. We push a lot of defense that leads to our offense, and build structure off of the defensive piece.”

Thornton, an attacker who has a great deal of confidence both in the pool and out, was specific about how his team has  bounced back all year, including Saturday.

“We lost to Pomona, came back, beat Pomona, lost to Whittier the first time, came back, beat them.” Thorton said about the Stags’ SCIAC rivals. “We’re a resilient team. When we lost to La Verne earlier this year; that set us back a bit [but] we’re right back on it.

“We’ve got a massive chip on our shoulder and really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Hopkins Head Coach Max Schlegel, who like MIT’s Ringheim is in his first year, mentioned that the outcome was disappointing, but not the effort by his players was not.

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Max Schlegel, Hopkins coach, searching for answers. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

“Our team played its hearts out” Schlegel, said, then explained his team was down a couple of starters to injury. Despite this lack of depth, the Hopkins coach said: “We played really hard. [We] couldn’t come out with a win but I’m super proud of these guys.”

A high point of the post-game press conference was the praise heaped on Fleming, a junior who before this season had never played polo — nor had any familiarity with the goalie position. In the interview room teammates Shipstead and Sullivan heaped praise on their novice teammate, while Coach Schlegel was pointed about how impressive he was with Fleming’s development this season.

“Coming into the season not even knowing any of the rules… and being there to support all his friends that he’s been there with, I’m so proud of him,” Schlegel said. “The amount that he has worked and improved from the first game is unreal.”

There’s still more matches to come!

Sunday’s final and third place games will pair up familiar foes; Whittier and CMS have met three times this season, with the Poets winning twice. Johns Hopkins and MIT — long-time rivals on the East Coast — have only met once in 2019, but that was for the DIII Eastern Championship, won by the Blue Jays.

[Johns Hopkins Wins DIII Eastern Championship; Will Join MIT in First-Ever DIII Collegiate Championship]

According to the Poet’s Kasa, who have one loss all season to a DIII foe — the Stags — capturing  gold in the inaugural DIII Collegiate Championship means a lot to the team’s players and fans.

“We want to win. Keep it really simple. We want to win it,” Kasa said prior to the CMS versus Hopkins result. “We’re playing a great opponent. Whichever team it is… I have a lot of respect for who we could play and we’re just going to focus on ourselves.”

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Whittier fans had a lot to cheer about Saturday night. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Equally determined to win are the Stags, but their head coach said that now matter what the outcome, this event is a win for all involved.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for the sport in general,” Lonzo said. “USA Water Polo’s putting on a tremendous tournament. It’s huge for our program to be a part of this event.

“The stakes are up higher because this is the first time we have a chance to win a national championship,” he said, then added. “For both teams this game is going to be very competitive.”

Both matches will be streamed by Whittier College; the link to watch is here. The third-place match between MIT and Johns Hopkins will take place at 10:30 a.m. (PST); the championship final will be at 12:30 p.m. (PST).