On The Record with Bill Harris, Head Coach for Fordham Men’s Water Polo

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Bailey O’Mara, a 6-8 freshman, may be key to the Rams' Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference title hopes in 2018. Photo Courtesy: Fordham Athletics

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

BRONX, NY. If it sometimes seems that water polo in the East exists anywhere but New York City, all it takes is a visit to the Col. Francis B. Messmore Aquatic Center on the scenic environs of Fordham University to see that the sport is alive and well in America’s largest city. That men’s water polo is thriving in the the city’s northernmost borough is due to Head Coach Bill Harris and Associate Head Coach Brian Bacharach, who over the past few years have taken the Rams to the cusp of great success in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC).

It comes as no surprise that Harris, a product of Brooklyn’s Bishop Loughlin High School who played polo for St. Francis College as well as the New York Athletic Club, is responsible for of one of the sport’s regional successes. A 1997 inductee—along with his brother Charles—into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame, Harris enjoyed a successful career in business before taking the reins of Rams polo in 2004. Since then he’s racked up a respectable 193 wins, including coming within an overtime goal of advancing to to last year’s MAWPC title match and Fordham’s first-ever NCAA appearance.

With the assistance of a core of devoted alumni, Harris has constructed a team that seeks to topple the MAWPC hierarchy, including Bucknell, George Washington and Wagner. With emerging goalie Bailey O’Mara, a 6-8 freshman from Darien, Connecticut, Harris has his team peaking at the right time.

Riding a four-match winning streak going into a stretch of six conference matches to bring the regular season to a close, the Rams (10-12; 2-4 MAWPC) will look to junior Jake Miller-Tolt [74 goals], sophomore Philip Wang [24 goals], freshman Dimitris Koukias [24 goals] and the aforementioned O’Mara to move up in the conference standings. Fordham has an important distinction this season; hosting the MAWPC Tournament, the first time in 28 years, when the 1994 Patriot League Swimming & Diving Championship was at Messmore Pool, that the Rams have hosted a conference tournament.

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Bill Harris (left) and Brian Bacharach. Photo Courtesy: Fordham Athletics

Coach Harris spoke with Swimming World immediately following his team’s 13-7 win over Salem University on Saturday night at Fordham. 

– How has the season gone thus far for your team?

It’s been a very interesting season. Any of the success we have is also due to Brian, who played at Cal. This young man is one of the best water polo minds I’ve met in a long time, and he’s helped me a great deal. The analogy I use [is]: I  the diamonds out of the ground and wash them off; Brian cuts them and polishes them and  have become talented [polo players].

It’s a good relationship and we work well together

As far as our season goes in 2018, we have high expectations. We did pretty well for our team with no full scholarships but with an  endowment, thanks to the generosity of our alums. Going into this season we knew we had some talent. We also had lost a graduate student, Massimiliano Mirarchi, who scored over 90 goals last year. So, we figured we’re going to really focus on defense and then have everyone chip in on offense.

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Massimiliano Mirarchi in 2017. Photo Courtesy: Fordham Athletics

Lo and behold we started our season and we played okay—even though we got more and more losses. At one point it was like Groundhog Day the same scenario game after game: we had eight losses by one goal and a loss to ranked Bucknell by two goals. We knew we were  a good team, but you can’t go around to people saying: We’re really good. If they look at our record that was not the case.

But we kept plugging along. We traveled to California and lost to some good teams. We went to overtime with

ranked Cal Baptist, we also lost to Redlands by one, but the guys remarkably did not get down. They just kept working. That’s why I really respect these guys. On some teams  They never quit or lost their focus.

This team is a pleasure to work with. They kept doing what we asked them to do and we are getting some wins.

We believed something was going to pay off [because] losses like this make winning so much better. [After] our Cal Baptist loss, we came back [East] and played La Salle—we didn’t have a lot of trouble with La Salle, which is a young team—and we played Wagner  so maybe they were anticipating [that] trip. We caught them [perhaps] on an off day; they’re a talented team. Chris Radmonivich does a fine job [coaching them].

We jumped to a lead—I think they may have had a one goal lead some time in that game—and then we were up two. We held on to the lead and it was a satisfying win over a very good squad.  talented starter of theirs get three fouls  We deserved that win it was really a hard-fought game.   p The team played with confidence The confidence level has risen, so we’re really pleased and we hope it will continue with our remaining conference matches.

Now the challenge is—with our wins over Connecticut College [an 18-1 win] and Salem—we need to carry our [momentum] over to next weekend when we go back to conference games. Then we’ll see where we really are. We’ve had one goal losses to Navy that hurt us in the rankings. We started out flat and in the first game with Wagner [13-4 loss], so now we have an opportunity to improve our position in the MAWPC .

– As you know, it’s not where you start but where you finish—and no better example of that is Wagner knocking off top-seeded Bucknell last year at the MAWPC semifinals.

It was  a mild upset last year at the finals at Navy when Wagner knocked off Bucknell—that was a  bit of a surprise  Against GW we had a solid  lead—and we thought we had a chance to go to the finals but GW fought back and won in overtime.

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Jake Miller-Tolt. Photo Courtesy: Fordham Athletics

Looking back, and looking where we came from in  at the beginning of the 2017 season, it was a success in that regard. But, it’s not successful when you’re trying to go to the championship match and to the NCAAs.

– This year’s MAWPC tournament will be held in your pool. How will your team prepare for what might be a great opportunity for your fans to support the Rams with an NCAA tournament berth at stake?

It should be a great weekend of water polo with the stands filled with fans . Being close to New York City it’s by far one of the top pools in our conference. There Navy, Bucknell and us. The home pool for Wagner is shallow-deep; GW, Hopkins and La Salle are also shallow-deep. I am happy to have our guests see what a great campus we have.

We haven’t hosted in over 20 years. We were in the Northern Conference for years and they had a plethora of deep pools: MIT, Brown, Harvard. So we were rotating there and they were close to each other, so that made sense.

Now we’re in the MAWAPC—it’s now the East division of the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference—and we’re playing against some fine teams.

– Before you get to the MAWPC there’s Fordham’s rivalry with Iona, in the form of the annual Judge Cup clash between the two programs.

Iona is coming here on Senior Day, November 10th. It will be raucous. The Judge family had a large number  of male polo players all of them, except for Chris Judge, played at Iona. Their dad Dr. Francis Judge, played for Fordham in the early 50s,  Chris attended Fordham and continued at the NYAC.

They started this idea and it blossomed. You can fill up half the stands with all the Judge family that shows up—God bless them! We get outnumbered by Iona Judges from the old days and it’s great. It’s not far, the kids come down, and I love having a crowd for [our players] especially on Senior Day.

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Fordham’s secret weapon: passionate fans! Photo Courtesy: Fordham Athletics

You never know what happens. If Iona comes out energized—you don’t know who’s gonna win. Last year the Gaels came out on top. [The Hyman Center—Iona’s pool facility] is like Fenway for the home team.

As we approach the finals we are hoping to get off to a strong start in our first game, right now we may be a fourth or fifth placed seed but that is not a certainty. This is the first time for us to host so perhaps we have a small edge being the home team.

Hopefully we’ll be in the four-five slot.

– A prime area of my focus is the proposed rule changes; essentially to pull back on the physicality in polo. You’ve been involved with polo for a long time; what will it take to implement these changes?

The physicality of the game has risen exponentially, and I think it’s to the detriment of the athletes and the sport. A big man against a skilled player can take his skills away—.and it makes the game a test of who has the best 6-5 attack. That doesn’t help the game. .  At the international and even the lower  levels of the sport the beauty of the game has been diminished, I am hopeful that a change and  interpretation of the rules will allow the truly gifted players a chance to exhibit their skills.

I fear we are in the jeopardy of perhaps losing the sport at the Olympic level unless we do something about it and do it soon.

[The NCAA] has tried to  improve the game. Fouls are called faster and movement is encouraged.

I hope that trend will continue; the players will get used to it, and we’ll start to see more skills exhibited. We have great college athletes in this country and I believe we’re going in the right direction; I hope we’re getting there fast enough. I am fortunate to continue to be involved in this great sport.

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