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

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LIU Head Coach Gabby Juarez (center) looks on as her Shark get ready for 1st-ever home game. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

BROOKLYN, NY. It took more than a year—due to COVID-19—but the women’s water polo team of Long Island University  finally got to swim in its home waters. Originally scheduled to open at home on March 21, 2020, when the Sharks (4-0; 4-0 MAAC) tipped off last night against Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference rival Virginia Military Institute (4-9; 1-4 MAAC), it was the Steinberg Wellness Center’s first-ever polo match.

Head Coach Gabby Juarez and her players made sure it was a memorable first—even if there were no fans on hand due to pandemic protocols.

1200px-LIU_Sharks_logo.svgThe visiting Keydets jumped to a 4-3 first quarter lead before a 16-3 Sharks scoring spurt over the second and third periods put the game away in a 21-12 rout.

For LIU, which endured a year’s delay due to the coronavirus pandemic that in March 2020 shut down sports nationally, the win—despite some anxious early moments—was worth the wait.

[Commentary: 2020 Spring Season Cancelled by NCAA is NOT the New Normal]

“We stuck to our game plan—steal the ball and counter. It allowed us to pull ahead and win,” Juarez said of her team’s resilience. “My team did an incredible job.”

Acknowledging LIU’s success, including a first-ever ranking in the weekly Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Top 25 poll, Juarez spoke of the present, including three important conference matches this weekend—Saturday at home against La Salle and Villanova and Sunday in New Rochelle against Iona.

“We’re not celebrating anytime soon—getting ranked #24 is an honor and a testament to these girl’s dedication—but this program has higher to go,” she said.

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These Sharks hunt in a pack! Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

In just its second year of existence, LIU is emerging as a favorite to win its conference and advance to the NCAA women’s tournament.

Jessica Dean, a sophomore who has consistently been the team’s best scoring option, delivered seven goals including three in a second period explosion that saw the Sharks seize an eight-goal lead at intermission.

It’s been a long wait to be able to play, so I want to make every game count,” Dean said of the win. “We’ve been training hard to have a chance of winning the MAAC.”

Chipping in with five scores was fellow Canadian Diba Peiravani, while goalie Julia Zebak—also from Canada—delivered big saves in goal early when her team needed. Zebak spoke about overcome travel, family and academic obstacles to arrive at this moment in Brooklyn.

“More than anything, I’m grateful that the school has accommodated us practicing in the fall and spring to become the team we need to be,” she said. “We’ve spent a lot of time getting to where we are, and that showed today.”

Another top performer for the Sharks was Elena Camarena. Hailing from Madrid, the freshman attacker tormented the Keydets, turning numerous steals into counterattack opportunities. She delivered five goals and a game-high five assists before being ejected late in the match after a scuffle with VMI’s Sydney Shettleroe.

“I love the girls because they are making things much easier,” Camarena said of teammates who have helped her find her footing, both on the team and in New York City. “We were really excited to play and win this game.”

McKenna Imset led the way for the visitors with seven goals. Sisters Catherine and Rachel Ahumada
Moore
notched a goal apiece as VMI lost the first in a five match New York swing that will take them to Loudonville, Poughkeepsie and New Rochelle.

For Keydet Head Coach Danielle Montenegro, the opportunity to play despite a year of COVID-19 related obstacles is a blessing in itself.

“Grateful to get any games in,” she said on the LIU pool deck. “It feels partially normal to play water polo again and have a season. That’s the big picture here.”

Despite being on the wrong end of the score, Montenegro was happy for Juarez and her team to finally open at home.

“It was nice to be able to come here and give [LIU] their first home game. They’re a tough team and will do well in conference.”

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VMI Head Coach Danielle Montenegro watched from the LIU deck. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Watching the match with satisfaction was LIU Deputy Athletic Direct Lloyd Ribner. This week alone LIU placed teams in four Northeast Conference finals, and with an NCAA performance last week by the school’s women’s volleyball team, everything’s coming up Carolina blue and gold—the school’s colors.

Sadly, no fans are in the stands to celebrate the teams’ successes—but they are watching online.

“Our student athletes have done an unbelievable job playing in front of nobody,” Ribner said. “We’ve stepped up our live-streaming efforts for our fans, and families of student athletes to make sure they have access to [games].”

Referencing a post-pandemic sports world, he added: “We cannot wait to invite Shark fans back to our camps and hope the success this year will roll into more winning in the future.”

Especially the immediate future for Shark water polo.

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