La Salle Men’s Water Polo Roars Back, Beats Austin 14-11 at Navy Invitational

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Scott Natatorium at the U.S. Naval Academy. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

ANNAPOLIS, MD. By some thinking it was a meaningless early-season match between two teams that had struggled mightily in 2018—and may do so again this season. With just three wins between them a year ago—and a combined 38 losses—Austin College and La Salle would not typically be compelling combatants, especially with #3 Stanford and #2 UCLA in the water at the 2019 Navy Invite.

But, in an entertaining contest that saw the Kangaroos of Austin twice jump out to three goal leads, it was the Explorers that enjoyed the last sprint—and who came away with a compelling 14-11 win on Saturday at Lejeune Aquatics Center.

Mismatches aplenty—except when two young programs meet

With two of the nation’s top three teams in from California, accomplished East Coast programs like host Navy, Princeton and Fordham as well as schools with higher aspirations including Austin, Iona, Johns Hopkins and La Salle, the competition last weekend at Navy was decidedly mixed. Stanford won all four if its games by a cumulative score of 90-14; UCLA’s four-match sweep resulted in a slightly less impressive 69-17 difference. In 18 matches over two days, only one was competitive.

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Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

That La Salle vs. Austin was the weekend’s most compelling game might not come as a surprise if you know their respective histories. These two teams were not just evenly matched, but—given last year’s dearth of success—both were acutely aware that victories are hard to come by. This made it surprising that Austin quickly broke out to an early 3-0 lead on two scores by Robert Griffin and one by Max Wade.

Undeterred, Daniel Domotor, Derek Allen and Joey De Fusco of La Salle immediately answered back to tie the game at three. But Austin again went ahead on a pair of goals by Brett Skinner and another score by Allen, an impressive freshman for the Kangaroos, making it 6-3 for and Austin program which in its first season went 1-15.

The Kangaroos’ head coach, Mark Lawrence—an imposing figure who strides vigorously around the pool deck—was optimistic about his young team’s prospects this season, and how valuable game-time experience is for them.

“Most of our guys are playing their first college minutes this weekend, and how they’re playing for what their experience is, it’s fantastic,” he said after the game. “Our guys listen really well, they try had and they’re committed.”

On the other side of the pool was La Salle’s Tom Hyham. While not as imposing as the 6-5 Lawrence, the Explorer coach was equally engaged with his players. He also was respectful of an opponent that was very much the equal of his squad, which now a total of twelve wins in its fourth year of existence.

“They’re well-coached, so we knew we were going to have our work cut out for us—especially considering we’re still ramping up on our talent level,” he said.

Despite again facing a daunting deficit, the Explorers did not panic. After a couple of big stops by Austin goalie Zach Griffith, La Salle broke through as Domotor scored on the power play with a minute left before halftime.

The junior opened the scoring after intermission, converting on a five-meter penalty to reduce his team’s deficit to one. DeFusco then beat Griffith on a skip to tie the game at six—part of a five-goal explosion by the Explorers that turned a three-goal deficit into a two-goal lead, as center Tyler Williams and Cole Strohson connected.

The Kangaroos were not done yet, rallying for a tie behind scores from Will Koelzer and Evan Cueva. It was a memorable goal for Cueva; the freshman from Ontario, California celebrating his birthday that day.

Jorden McVeagh scored to make it 9-8 La Salle, but Cade Griffith—twin brother of goalie Zach—got the equalizer for Austin with 25 seconds left in the period.

Somebody has to lose

The final period would prove decisive for the Explorers—and devastating for the Kangaroos. La Salle opened with two goals by Williams, the second punctuated by an in-pool celebration—but Austin struck back quickly. Andrew Pope, the Kangroos’ leading scorer in 2018, connected on a five-meter penalty, then Griffin completed his hat trick with a blast past La Salle goalie Cameron Schiable.

That goal turned out to be Austin’s last score of the evening.

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La Salle Coach Tom Hyham and freshman Isaiah Klein-Cloud.

De Fusco, who leads the Explorers in the pool, broke the tie for the final time by scoring from six meters halfway through the final period.

“He’s one of our top players, and the reason he’d be considered that is because of his water polo IQ,” his coach said. “He’s a leader in the water, and without him we don’t win that game.”

The La Salle captain then delivered a brilliant pass to Strohson to put his team up by two goals with less than two minutes to play. Williams completed the scoring—and a hat trick of his own—by converting a rebound with 46 seconds remaining, giving La Salle a 14-11 lead and a thrilling comeback win.

Hyham, who did not get his first win with the program until his team’s tenth match last season, had achieved the feat far earlier in a season that feels entirely different than last.

“We have a senior class [this year]. We have guys who feel they are leaders on the team,” he said, then added: “[T]hey can make adjustments in the water without me having to say it.”

For Lawrence and his team, now 0-5 on the season, there were lessons learned the hard way.

“We’re disappointed to lose but it’s a great game for our young players to learn: when you force 50/50 opportunities, they can backfire,” he said.