On Deck With Barry King, George Washington Water Polo Coach

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George Washington's Barry King directs his team in a 2018 NCAA quarterfinal match. Photo Courtesy: John Todd

BRONX. NY. The compelling water polo news out of California—where UC Santa Barbara and Pacific have made claim to territory traditionally occupied by the Big Four—should not overshadow the story of George Washington’s men’s team. Qualifying for back-to-back NCAAs, including a quarterfinal spot in 2018 for the first time in program history, the Colonials (12-3; 3-0 MAWPC) have successfully adopted a mantra of just one more game to push on to greater success.

GWIf that model holds true, GW would become the first team from the East since Harvard in 2016 to advance to an NCAA semifinal match. Given a fast start and the talent on Head Coach Barry King’s roster—as well as a narrowing of the talent gap between East and West—that “One More” focus may hold true in 2019.

First, King and the Colonials will need to conquer the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference again. This is no simple matter; standing in the way of a three-peat are a talented and deep Bucknell squad (9-2; 2-1 MAWPC) , that features the one-two punch of senior Rade Joksimovic and freshman Andu Vlasceanu. That and a surprising Fordham team (12-3; 4-1 MAWPC), which has it’s own scoring tandem of senior Jake Miller-Tolt and sophomore Dimitris Koukias.

Last weekend Swimming World caught up with King as his team traveled to Fordham’s Col. Francis B. Messmore Aquatic Center and took down the host Rams by the score of 9-8—the start of an unbeaten swing through the New York metropolitan area. The Colonials’ coach the past three years spoke about his team’s past success and what it will take to extend what has been the greatest period of success in GW polo history.

– Your team comes to the Bronx, setting for one of the most dramatic wins in Colonial history—an overtime victory against Bucknell in the 2018 MAWPC final. Then GW gets a great comeback win over a very good Fordham squad.

I’m quite pleased with the outcome. We got to see [Fordham] play the last two weekends at Princeton and Bucknell, and we’re quite concerned, especially if we weren’t at full strength.

To gut it out and not necessarily have things going our way early, I’m pleased. We addressed a lot of the issues we were having in terms of construction offense.

Their keeper [Bailey O’Mara] was playing pretty well for three quarters and we kinda found a way to sneak it around.

That was just a good solid water polo game between two above average squads. We’re looking to build on that and move

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Colonials stand at attention at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center for 2018 NCAAs. Photo Courtesy: George Washington Athletics

forward—and when we can get everybody healthy we’re going to be pretty dangerous.

– You go into conference play as two-time defending MAWPC champs. What will it take to make it three titles in a row?

I don’t think we can be considered the conference favorites without Atakan in the pool. But I like the experience this is getting people. If you want to talk about the full arc, I’ve got guys who are getting valuable, meaningful time that are still going to be with me for two to three more years—and have to know how to play without him in the pool.

[2019 Swimming World Men’s Water Polo Previews: Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-East]

That’s where the true value of this is. At the end of the day we still need to win three games on November 20th, 21st and 22nd. So, it’s meaning for this season is mitigated by: we’ve just got to win in November, too.

It’s nice to get some guys experience that haven’t had the experience of not playing with [Atakan].

– Because of your program’s success, you have to both focus on winning now and building for the future.

Winning and recruiting go hand-in-hand… or, one’s the glove and one’s the hand. It’s been easier to attract players of a better level than GW’s been able to in previous years. We have people paying attention to us that maybe wouldn’t have five or six years ago. So that helps quite a bit.

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GW celebrates win over Princeton in NCAA play-in match. Photo Courtesy: Christine Yardley

I’m not worried about the talent level. Now it’s about chemistry—who really fits and makes us better. I’m looking for talented kids who are great teammates and make each other better. When you have that, then the sustainability of winning is a lot easier.

– What’s the short-team impact of the Colonials’ trip to an NCAA quarterfinal for the first time?

A little bit of that is happening right now. Our mantra last year was: “One More” — and that really hasn’t changed. Santa Barbara has instructed the universe this year that the difference between the best and the 20 has shrunk some. Everybody’s better; the gaps between the four and the rest have disappeared.

[UC Santa Barbara Aims to Replicate Gauchos’ 1979 NCAA Championship Run]

Our job is to put ourselves in position to play one more game than we did last year.

– Why does the Gauchos’ success capture attention on the East Coast?

If you look historically, you have Pacific six years ago who jumped the shark in that particular season… number five has been getting better and better. The gap between four and five has been shrinking and in fact disappeared last year. That says to me that there’s this upward surge moving forward from the GWs and UC San Diego and Princeton and Harvard.

Right now, you could argue that there are five – six teams in the East that probably have their best team ever, in this year. That’s not an accident.

– To that point, it seems this is a result of Eastern programs being successful enticing some of the top California players to forgo playing in the West.

That’s a fine-line situation. Yes, you want kids who come out of good programs, who have been taught well, who have played some high-level water polo. But you also don’t want people who’ve played their best water polo. And, you want people who are capable of making their teammates better. That’s really where the Eastern groups are going to make jumps. And that’s what Atakan’s done for us.

GW Water Polo vs Navy at Smith Center October 19, 2018

King makes a point to his players. Photo Courtesy: Gary A. Cameron

That guy’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever been around. So, when he is making everybody better around him, then you’re not just George Washington featuring Atakan Destici. You are a way better George Washington team. That’s what you’ve got to look at when some living room doors are open to you that haven’t been in the past.

Yes, he’s talented but is that kid going to make everybody around him better?

– One player that reflects very well on your program is Andrew Mavis, who has worked very hard to make himself better.

Those two together… we’ve got some big holes to fill [when Destici and Mavis graduate]. We’re not gonna replace them. But the job of making everybody better—they’ve taken that on, so whomever comes in and fills those positions is coming into just a way better situation than those guys inherited.

[‘A Whole New Level’: George Washington University’s Mavis Boosts Game with Unique Summer Regimen]

That’s the stuff that I’m proudest of for them—they’ve been such good teammates and representatives of the program—and have given the program real meaning and gravitas.

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