Northeast Water Polo Conference Report: Harvard Reigns Supreme in Opening Weekend of Conference Play

December 3, 2016;Time out for Harvard during Harvard vs USC at NCAA semi final game at Spieker Aquatics, Berkeley, CA © photo by Catharyn Hayne - KLC fotos
Harvard's Ted Minnis has brought the Crimson unprecedented success—and now the fastest start in program history. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

BROOKLYN HEIGHTS, NY. St. Francis College of Brooklyn bills itself as a “The Small College of Big Dreams.” Over a weekend of men’s water polo play against Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) opponents, the SFC tag line might have been: “The School That Gets No Respect.” The Terriers could not buy a call in their own pool against three NWPC foes.

It was that kind of weekend in Brooklyn Heights, where St. Francis—despite an overwhelming number of foul calls—still won two out of three. The team they couldn’t beat, and the one squad that no one has topped twelve games into 2019, is Harvard, who emerged as the top team in the East on the first weekend of conference play.

Harvard is the East’s Best

A season after one of the most significant wins in program history—a stunning overtime decision over #3 Cal last September—the Crimson (12-0; 3-0 NWPC) have gotten off to an even faster start in 2019. On Saturday, Head Coach Ted Minnis’ squad spotted host Princeton an early 3-1 lead, then sprinted ahead 5-3. The home team drew even at 6-all before intermission, but another scoring spurt put the visitors up by two going into the final period before Harvard emerged with a 12-9 win.

The next stop on the Crimson’s travel itinerary was New York City and the Terriers, historically one of Harvard and Minnis’ biggest foes. In his decade of leadership of the schools’ men’s and women’s program, Minnis has barely succeeded in ten trips to SFC’s pool. In a reflection of the dramatic turn in fortunes engineered by their coach, since 2016 Harvard has beaten St. Francis in six of their last eight meetings and five straight.


Dennis Blyashov. Photo Courtesy: Harvard Athletics

On Sunday morning in Brooklyn Heights, the Crimson broke out to a 5-2 first period lead, then weathered a series of Terrier comeback attempts to hold on for a 17-15 win. Leading the way for the NWPC’s leading team were Dennis Blyashov and Alex Tsotadze with five goals apiece. Noah Hodge was superb in goal, stopping a critical five-meter penalty attempt by the Terrier’s Ivan Stefanovic early in the fourth period to snuff out any comeback hopes the home team harbored.

After the match, Minnis reflected on a rivalry that has now turned in Harvard’s favor.

I think that’s only the third time in my ten-year career that I’ve won here. The crowd, even at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning is good,” he said. “I don’t know if you can ever really figure out how to play here. We got lucky today; we played against a very talented team—it was a lot of fun to be a part of.”

He then showered his players with much-deserved praise, starting with Blyashov, who has dominated the East since arriving from Cathedral Catholic in Carlsbad, California three years ago.

I love Dennis, and I love what he brings to the program,” Minnis said. “But, I believe this team is the deepest team that I’ve ever coached—and it’s the best team that we’ve had so far here at Harvard. We’re deep at every position; we can go six-for-six and there’s not a deep drop off.

“We’re lucky that we have Dennis but we also have another All-American in Austin Sehcrest. Our senior captain Charlie Owens is playing amazing. Our freshmen are showing up; Alex Bucur had a great goal. The final one by Kaleb Archer… I think we’re a well-balanced team and we don’t go by one player.

To complete the weekend sweep, Harvard went on to Iona in New Rochelle to face the Gaels in their particular shallow / deep pool configuration, where one end is only four and a half feet deep and the cage at that end appears as big as soccer goal. Iona (2-10; 0-4 NWPC) has struggled the past two years against conference opponents, and Sunday would be no different, as they dropped a 19-9 decision to the Crimson, their 16th straight loss to NWPC foes. The win represented a new program record for Harvard; their previous best win streak was 11.

For their success, Minnis and his team gets two more conference road matches next weekend; trips to Providence for a match-up with Ivy rival Brown and then cross-Cambridge to face a resurgent MIT team that has opened the season at 7-3, the Engineers’ best record since 2007.

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“We know our conference is deep and we’re going to have battles every time we hit the pool,” the Crimson coach said. “We’re not afraid of anyone and no one is afraid of us.”

A weekend slog at St. Francis

After losing their season opener to #16 Bucknell, MIT reeled off six-straight wins. Austin Ringheim, who took over the program last August, has continued a program upswing started last season when Brett Lathrope propelled the Engineers to a 10-13 record, in the process earning 2018 NWPC Coach of the Year Honors.

With seven wins already in 2019, Ringheim has to be considered an early favorite for coach of the year honors this season. But, MIT’s progress is likely to be incremental, as was evidenced by the team’s contest against St. Francis on Saturday.

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Down two players – including second-leading scorer Clyde Huibregtse, the Engineers were no match for a deep and offensive-minded Terrier squad off to a fast-start of their own. On goals from Matheus Santos, Stefanovic, Dominick Hevesi and Zane Drobenko, St. Francis opened a 4-0 first period lead.


Photo Courtesy: MIT Athletics

The visitors rallied in the second to trim their deficit to three, but a six-goal Terrier spurt after intermission made it 14-8 after three periods, and the home team cruised to a 17-9 win, their fifth straight. MIT would make its own trip to New Rochelle and hang on for a 10-9 OT win before a Sunday trip to Princeton. That was another overtime contest for the Engineers; unfortunately, they ended up on the wrong end of a 10-9 score when the Tigers’ Keller Maloney and Mitchell Cooper both tallied in the extra period.

Ringheim acknowledged the fast start and—despite injuries to a limited roster—he feels like the Engineers are deep enough to compete.

“It’s been a great start,” he said after the St. Francis match. “Yes, we have two guys injured by we definitely have the guys on deck and in the water to be successful against anybody we get to compete against—and that’s our main goal as a program. If we have six seniors or six freshmen we want to compete and make sure we put out our best effort in the pool in every single game we can.”

The results so far this season from MIT and their new coach are impressive, as is their lone freshman, Sawyer Koetters. A highly prized recruit from Santa Monica, California, Koetters turned down a spot at the U.S. Naval Academy to sign on with MIT.

After beating the Engineers behind four goals from Santos and a hat-trick from Hevesi, the Terriers (11-4; 3-1 NWPC) welcomed Brown to town Saturday evening. In a scrum-fest exciting only to hard-core St. Francis faithful, Head Coach Bora Dimitrov’s side emerged with a sloppy 16-14 win that featured 27 exclusions—20 called against the home team—and a surprising two goalie exclusions, both of which the Terriers defended.


St. Francis Head Coach Bora Dimitrov. Photo Courtesy: Joseph Gomez

The story of this game was: the refs would subtract St. Francis players and Bora’s troops would bear down and defend. The Bears scored eight times—more than half of their goals—with the man advantage; it was not enough to blunt a Terrier attack that saw Hevesi go off for six goals on 10 shots. For the weekend, the freshman from Budapest had 13 goals, including four against Harvard.

Besides their resilience against Brown, St. Francis demonstrated that they’ve got depth at goal, which may prove pivotal later in the season. Dimitrov rotated seniors Benedek Molnar and Viktor Klauzer throughout the weekend; Klauzer was particularly sharp, stopping a five-meter penalty shot in the Harvard match and playing a very aggressive game in net.

The SFC coach, who as recently as 2015 was starting for the Terriers, understood that managing emotions is a key component of his teams prospects for success.

“It’s always the biggest challenge [of St. Francis].” Dimitrov said after the loss to Harvard. “A lot of them bring that passion to the team, and you have to be grateful for it. But, there’s the part where the passion goes out of control.

“So many guys are coming from different backgrounds, and they need to adjust to the new system of refereeing. This is the first weekend we had one, West Coast referee, who has a different standard.”


Viktor Klauzer. Photo Courtesy: SFC Athletics

Addressing the issue of refereeing in his pool’s particular confines, he added: “For a lot of our guys it was really hard to adjust to his way of refereeing. It’s a lot of emotions that at some point as a coach you need to address it to make them realize it’s a different ballgame—it’s not like what they played in Europe or South America or wherever they come from.”

Against Harvard, no amount of aggression could keep St. Francis in the game with Harvard. The recent battles in the Pope between these two teams have been extremely physical; three seasons ago the home team rallied to beat the Crimson 13-11, last year they dropped a 15-14 decision when Sehcrest—one of the Crimson’s top players but also a prime antagonist against other teams—was ejected from the match and gave it to the Terrier faithful.

[With Patience and Passion, Harvard Men’s Water Polo Grabs Victory Over St. Francis Brooklyn]

This game, the referees called exclusions on Harvard’s first two possessions and then called a five-meter penalty on the third, which Tsotadze converted. In all, there were three five-meter penalties called on the Terriers in the opening period, part of a total of seven penalties in the period that gifted the visitors three of their five goals. The only high point for the home team was Klauzer’s stop of Blyashov.

That was one of the few times Dimitrov’s defense was able to stop the Crimson’s leading scorer; when the Terriers mounted a rally late in the third after falling behind by four, Blyashov scored goals three minutes apart to restore the four-goal bulge; when Jackson Enright scored on Harvard’s next possession, the deficit was five and even a late surge by the home team, when they scored three times in the last two minutes, was enough to change the outcome.

Brown struggling to keep pace

With Harvard at 3-0 in conference play, and SFC at 3-1; Brown and Princeton are in danger of falling further behind the conference leaders. Princeton has a match against St. Francis next Saturday in Brooklyn; Brown (9-7; 1-2) will face Harvard and MIT next Saturday. With losses to the Tigers (8-9; 2-1 NWPC) and the Terriers already this season, it becomes challenging for Head Coach Felix Mercado’s to keep up with the leaders. The Bears travel to the Harvard Invite and then the Julian Fraser Memorial Tournament in Santa Clara before a big weekend at home in Providence against Iona, Princeton and St. Francis.

If the Bears struggle in these matches, they may fall to fourth going into the conference playoffs; getting to the NWPC final from this spot will be particularly daunting, especially if high-flying Harvard is still first; they’ll host the 2019 NWPC championships in Cambridge.