Commentary: LIU Water Polo Withdrawal from MAAC Championships Another COVID-19 Casualty

LIU women's water polo withdrew from the 2021 MAAC Championship despite being the #1 seed. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Late last week, after conducting interviews, digging in on statistics and pounding away at my keyboard, I was ready to publish a piece on how LIU women’s water polo—despite only eight available players, including two goalies—was primed for a run at the 2021 Metro Atlantic Athletics Conference (MAAC) Championship.

BLUE_AND_BLUEThen came the news late Friday afternoon: the Sharks had inexplicably withdrawn from the MAAC playoffs—a stunning reversal of fortune. When questioned about its team’s circumstances, the LIU Athletic Department issued a terse “No comment.”

The withdrawal allowed VMI, the Sharks’ semifinal opponent, to advance to its first-ever MAAC final, a 13-10 loss to host Marist on Sunday at McCann Natatorium in Poughkeepsie, New York.

[Joy in Poughkeepsie! Marists Bests VMI in 2021 MAAC Water Polo Final]

When emailed regarding the circumstances of the Sharks’ withdrawal, Valerie Mcquade, the MAAC’s Assistant Commissioner of New Media, said it was unusual but not unprecedented.

“Yes, there have been past cases, although infrequent,” Mcquade wrote. “More often it occurs before actual competition commences. And it impacts who is selected for the championship.

“Timing did not allow that to occur in this instance,” she added—not intentionally ironic, I assume.


LIU goalie Julia Zebak. Photo Courtesy: Adam Baron

LIU’s disappointment is more than just a story for me. It touched on much of the frustration and sadness that has battered my city—and my Downtown Brooklyn neighborhood—since the coronavirus pandemic invaded our collective lives more than a year ago.

I’ve been around the LIU program since it was launched three years ago and have been impressed by the Sharks’ rapid rise in local and national polo circles. Ranked #23 in the most recent Collegiate Water Polo Association poll, a 7-0 record in MAAC play earned Head Coach Gabby Juarez’s team top seeding in the MAAC, and a shot at an incredible prize: a berth in the 2021 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament.

The Sharks’ semifinal match against the fourth-seeded Keydets would have easily been the most significant in the program’s brief history. LIU had bested VMI 21-12 two weeks ago, but given the team’s shortened roster, Saturday’s contest would have been a difficult affair. Immediately following that April 22 win over VMI, a COVID quarantine sidelined a number of LIU players, including three starters.

[Sharks Make History: LIU Women’s Water Polo Wins First-Ever Home Match]

Despite having the barest minimum of players—starting goalie Julie Zebak has often played the field when her team is shorthanded—Juarez was confident her team would produce a strong performance against VMI. She had proof of her squad’s resilience: the previous weekend, a barebones roster captured three matches, including a 12-11 takedown of La Salle, LIU’s top rival in the conference’s Blue Division.


Morgue tent for COVID-19 victims at Brooklyn Hospital—across the street from LIU’s Steinberg Wellness Center. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

It appeared likely that the greatest season in the young program’s history would be capped by a MAAC finals appearance. Now, the Sharks’ inability to compete for a title represents a sad conclusion to what had been a glorious 2021 performance.

After watching last April’s win over VMI—LIU’s first-ever water polo match in the Steinberg Wellness Center, the team’s home—I spoke with goalie Zebak and Jessica Dean, leaders of the young Shark squad, about what this season meant.

It’s been a long wait since we’ve been playing, so I just want to make every game count. It’s been awesome to get in the pool—it’s had its challenges but we’re playing together… something to look forward to during this pandemic,” said Dean, who in LIU’s first two seasons has led the program in scoring—53 goals in 2020 and 28 this season.

“We’re really going to take advantage of this season. We’ve been training hard in the preseason so I think we have a great chance of winning the MAAC.”

Zebak, the Sharks emotional leader, echoed the sentiments of her fellow Canadian.

“More than anything, I’m grateful the school has been able to accommodate us practicing in the fall and the spring,” she said. “We’ve been able to go back with no issues and become the team we need to be.


LIU’s Jessica Dean. Photo Courtesy: Adam Baron

“I’m living the dream,” Zebak continued. “Many people back home who are living in quarantine say: Make sure to enjoy every second of your life [in New York City] because we’re all living through you. We see you and all you’re accomplishing there—you’re playing water polo [and] getting opportunities that many people in Canada are not because of COVID-19.

“Make it count for us.”

These heartfelt comments resonate with me now. In a period of unbelievable loss for so many, the opportunity of play was uplifting for this fan—so I can only imagine how it feels for athletes who trained so hard for so long to lose out.

Wagner, which did not compete this spring due to COVID-19 concerns, will be back in 2022, looking to reclaim the MAAC crown that it held for six straight years—and re-establish the pecking order of the Seahawks and the Red Foxes trading titles. One that the pandemic upended, giving a young, scrappy and inspiring LIU team an unexpected shot at a MAAC title and NCAA berth.

Until circumstances—or fate—snatched it away.

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