Men’s Fall NCAA Water Polo Season Prospects Fading Fast

Pacific Pavillard 12-8-19
Pacific's Luke Pavillard, pictured here in the 2019 NCAA Men's Water Polo final, scored the last men's polo goal almost a year ago. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

Last December 8, Luke Pavillard, Pacific’s All-American  lefthander, posted up and scored with 18 seconds remaining in the 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo final.  In the moment, the goal’s significance was minor. It cut Stanford’s lead to 13-8, but did not prevent the Cardinal from hoisting the championship trophy moments later.

Now, Pavillard’s goal looms large. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely to be the last goal scored in men’s college water polo for a long time—including what would have been the men’s 2020 season.

With COVID-19 cases spiking throughout the country, college conferences have responded by suspending fall sports until 2021. These postponements make it extremely unlikely that there will men’s water polo competition the fall.  In a striking contrast to safe practices, Power Five universities are planning virtual learning for the fall semester while their athletic directors are scrambling to launch a 2020 football season to preserve precious television revenue.  But, a trend towards safety in sports does exist: nationwide, non-revenue sports are being postponed this fall, including men’s water polo.

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

Last month saw a flurry of announcements concerning the sport, with more to come. On July 20, the the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) announced that it’s two Eastern conferences—the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC) and the Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC)—will not offer Fall 2020 competition.  Together these two conferences account for almost half of the 49 schools that play NCAA Men’s Water Polo. 

Stanford team pic w trophy 12-8-19

Stanford team with 2019 NCAA championship trophy last December. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

Dan Sharadin, the CWPA commissioner, has proposed a January to March men’s season in the event the NCAA eliminates or reschedules fall championship play. He also suggested resetting the women’s season from March to May in order to accommodate his conference’s 17 head coaches who coach both genders.

The next day, Texas-based Austin College announced that it would suspend competition in men’s water polo for the fall of 2020.  The ‘Roo team is in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), which includes USC, UCLA, Cal-Berkeley and Stanford—historically the top teams in NCAA polo—as well as Penn State Behrend, like Austin a Division III program .

On July 24, NCAA President Mark Emmert spoke about his association’s approach to sports in the age of the coronavirus.

“Today the Board of Governors and I agreed that we must continue to thoughtfully and aggressively monitor health conditions around the country and the implementation of the COVID-19 guidelines we issued last week,” his statement read. “The health and well-being of college athletes is the highest priority in deciding whether to proceed with our 22 NCAA championships beginning in late November.

“We all remain deeply concerned about the infection trend lines we see. It is clear that the format of our championships will have to change if they are to be conducted in a safe and fair manner.  We discussed other complexities in addition to the health and safety impacts, to include team availability, travel limitations and various local and state restrictions. We will continue our discussions in August.”

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Dan Sharadin (left) with Jen Jen Dubow, John Abdou, Michael Randazzo. Courtesy: Tony Leon

And on July 29, the Big West Conference suspended its fall sports until 2021. Five of it’s members sponsor men’s water polo. Three are members of the Golden Coast Conference (GCC)—UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State. Two are from the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA)—UC Davis, and UC San Diego. The Big West announcement specified that this decision does not impact fall sports (like water polo) unaffiliated with the Big West Conference.

But UC San Diego—newly added to the conference this fall—was quick to add its own statement: “This decision by Big West leadership will impact all UC San Diego intercollegiate athletic competitions, including those not competing as members of the Big West Conference – most notably, the men’s water polo program that competes during the fall as a member of the Western Water Polo Association.” 

Fellow UC schools Santa Barbara and Irvine will follow the Big West postponement as well.

That day, WWPA Commissioner Steve Doten said bluntly: “I don’t see us playing, I don’t see it happening.”  He stipulated the conditions under which he thought play could resume: “Until there is a vaccine or the curve is so flat that the virus is under control.”

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Photo Courtesy: Steve Doten

Doten, a former head coach at UC Davis, and now an faculty member there, noted that the Aggies men’s team will also not play this fall.  Speaking generally of university presidents and athletic directors Doten explained: “[They’re] not supposed to put people in harm’s way. That’s why I just don’t see play happening for the fall.”

July 31 brought more news.  The GCC announced that it would not play in the fall and left open the possibility that they would begin play in January pending NCAA announcements concerning fall sports and championships. 

“The pandemic has had a major impact in the state of California over the last few weeks which has forced us to make some tough decisions in collegiate athletics,”  said GCC Commissioner Mike Daniels. “We are hopeful this will enable us to have a full season come January.”

The MPSF has yet to announce its intentions for the upcoming fall season.  It would seem to be the last piece of a puzzle that has increasingly is coming into clear focus: There will not be NCAA men’s water polo in 2020.

At press time, 32 of the 49 teams have postponed their seasons. The NCAA will likely make a decision concerning the fall championships in the coming days.  The 2020 championship tournament is scheduled to be held at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center. It now seems inevitable that Pavillard’s score will stand the test of time as the last NCAA goal tallied—for some time to come.

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