On The Record with Scott Schulte, Bucknell, CWPA and USA Water Polo Hall of Famer

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The 1977 Bucknell men's water polo team. Scott Schulte is back row, third from left. Photo Courtesy: S. Schulte

Editor’s Note: In one of the seminal matches in Eastern water polo history, on November 13, 1977, Pittsburgh faced Bucknell at the Joseph C. Trees Pool for the Eastern Water Polo League Southern Division Championship. A rematch of the 1976 final, won 14-12 by Pitt, with less than a minute remaining the host Panthers held a two-goal lead and appeared headed to another NCAA men’s tournament as the East’s best team. But, in a memorable turn of events, the Bison rallied to force overtime, and won the game 21-20 on a shot by Mark Gensheimer in the first minute of sudden death.

Following is the first in a series of articles about the participants involved in one the more memorable polo matches in Eastern intercollegiate history. The second is a discussion with Jorge Machicote, a member of the opposing Pitt team and the third is a conversation with Jay Fisette, Schulte’s teammate on the 1977 Bucknell squad. The fourth is an interview with Miguel Rivera, architect of the Pitt men’s water polo program.

It’s one of the most incredible collegiate water polo feats in American history. Scott Schulte netted 586 goals for Bucknell from 1977-81—a total that works out to 146 goals a year. Combined with 256 assists, and a final collegiate season where he scored 184 goals, handed out 88 helpers and registered 272 points, to this day Schulte remains the NCAA career record-holder for goals.

Bucknell Bison LogoHis tenure in Lewisburg is the stuff of legends—and has stood the test of time despite brilliant play the past four years by fellow Bison Rade Joksimovic. During Schulte’s career Bucknell captured four Eastern championships and bids to the NCAA men’s tournament from 1977 – 1981. He was All-American second team selection in 1979 and 1980—the only player from the East selected during those years—and was high scorer in four straight NCAA tournaments. A combined total of 50 goals in national championship play—like Schulte’s career goal total—is the most in NCAA history.

For his exploits, Schulte is enshrined in the Bucknell, Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) and USA Water Polo halls of fame.

Swimming World spoke with one of the most amazing polo athletes the East has ever known about his time as a Bison, how foreign players can instantly transform a program and his memories of one of the greatest games in Eastern polo history, the 1977 EWPL Southern Division Championships won 21-20 by Bucknell over Pitt in sudden death overtime—which launched a Bison dynasty.

– The brief, brilliant run by the University of Pittsburgh men’s water polo team in the mid-70’s is memorable. But it’s not an original story to bring in foreign-born athletes to transform a program.

You look at what happened with Pitt. You look at what happened with UMass, and you look at what happened with Queens College. St. Francis [Brooklyn] is a sign of it [this].

[St. Francis Spices Up Water Polo Team With Europeans]

Pitt was the first one. They brought up the whole Puerto Rican national team other than Carlos Steffens, who ended up going to Berkeley and being a stud for Cal.

Pitt’s program was there and gone. You look at UMass; Russ Yarworth did the same thing at UMass that Miguel [Rivera] did at Pitt, but he was a swim coach who became a water polo coach.

He brings in all those Puerto Ricans and they dominated East Coast water polo for five, six, seven years.

And then they all left. And the program died.

Queens had a really good program—not from Puerto Rico but foreigners from other countries. St. Francis has done the same thing for numerous years. You now have the same scenario with Bucknell, and the foreigners who have gotten international scholarships.

That’s one dynamic of what happens with water polo, and Pitt was the first one.

– You ended up in Bucknell, in the middle of a fierce rivalry with the Panthers.

I’ll be asked: Why didn’t you go to California and play? I grew up in Montclair, New Jersey and John Baran, my first coach, had played at Fordham. Then Joe Slowinski, my high school swim coach had also played at Yale. That was back in the day when Yale was pretty good.

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Scott Schulte. Photo Courtesy: CWPA

There were little pockets–Greenwich hadn’t even started yet—we would go and play all the high school teams. And, when we were seniors in high school we would play the college teams. I played against Bucknell when I was in high school, and against Army. That’s when I got exposured to [Dick] Russell at Bucknell. I had a choice of going to Bucknell for water polo—I was an All-American swimmer—and back then swimmers played water polo.

Nowadays, a swimmer becomes a water polo player in high school; he might swim in high school, but if he’s a top-level player, when he gets to college he’s done swimming. When I was recruited, just like with Mark Gensheimer, the caveat for me was that I could swim and keep getting better at water polo. The biggest thing was that Bucknell was going varsity my freshman year.

I was choosing between Cornell and Bucknell—and at Cornell polo was a club sport with different coaches [for water polo and swimming]. With Russell, it was the same coach.

– Did you know what to expect when you arrived in Lewisburg?

When I went there, I knew that they had a good club program. They had success—though the previous year they had lost to Pitt—I didn’t even know that. I just knew it as a program where I would be able to swim and play water polo—and, now that it was a varsity sport, there would be backing from the school. I didn’t know if they had lost anybody. Mark was from Pittsburgh; most of the other guys who were freshmen hadn’t really played at a high level in high school. [Russel] had recruited them as swimmers to become water polo players.

Russell Hertzberg was from Pittsburgh too, and he was supposed to go to Bucknell. There’s another guy named Alex Sodi—both these guys were supposed to go to Bucknell alongside myself and Gensch. Alex ended up going to Cornell, and Russ at the last minute decided to go to Brown.

Gensch and I were the nucleus of the new guys coming in—along with [Rick] Renner and [Jay] Fisette who were seniors. I don’t know if back then they projected how good anyone would be. People knew I was pretty good but didn’t know how I’d do at the college level. People picked up on it pretty quickly that we had a good team.

It was different that freshman year because Brown didn’t play…. That year, the Easterns were at Pittsburgh. And Brown didn’t have to go to Easterns to qualify for nationals. They got into the NCAA tournament, which was held at Brown, without even playing us. Or Pitt.

– Pitt, coached by Rivera, was your biggest rival in the East.

[Pitt] was the team to beat, and they had Jorge Machicote, and they had Butch Silva—those were the two main studs on the team. Mike Schofield was on the team—that’s kind of ironic.

[On The Record with Mike Schofield, Legendary Navy Water Polo Coach Turned Referee]

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Bucknell victorious over Pitt in 1977. Photo Courtesy: S. Schulte

It was like plug and play: They had a beautiful facility, they’ve got these players, you compliment them with a couple of players from the Pittsburgh area—I don’t think they had any players from California on their team—and suddenly they have this powerhouse team. They were very talented as far as ball-handling skills. They had played a lot together, so a lot of them knew each other.

They would come out and have a tough, Puerto Rican “Don’t mess with us!” mentality. They weren’t fast but they were smart, clever and strong. Machiote was the 2-meter man and Butch was the muscle guy—and they had a couple of outside drivers. We had this rivalry which I suddenly was in the middle of in a big way.

Back then it was Brown, Pitt, Army—no Navy, no Princeton; none of the other programs that are in there today. Cornell was decent; there were a lot of other teams we played but those were the ones we ran into all the time.

– Was this what made your 1977 match so special?

The Eastern tournament that was played at Pitt—it was just a ridiculous game. [Not] from the standpoint of skill relative to other games—but the intensity of it was ridiculous.

Over the years the rules have changed so much in NCAA water polo—I don’t even know what they were [then]. There was a rule that you had three fouls in the set—and if you fouled the guy a third time in the set you’d get kicked out. They’d do a switch after a second foul. There’s another where five ordinary fouls is a penalty shot. Just an ordinary foul.

That’s why a lot of guys fouled out, especially if you had a game that goes into overtime. That game against Pitt, the rule that saved us is—the ball starts with the goalie. Now, after a goal is scored, the ball goes back to halfcourt. And you can spread out and chuck the ball back.

According to Gensch, we were down two goals with 13 seconds; I scored a goal with six—whatever seconds left—and then they called a time out. And they [started up] with the ball at the goalie. So, we pressed the goalie. If they had just not called a time out and gave us a chance to set up. Or, sent the ball had been sent back to halfcourt, like it is now, the odds of us tying that game would have been none.

But by them calling a timeout, and the ball going back to the goalie, we went into this press on the goalie. Our goalie came up and that’s when the bad pass was made. That’s when Jay got the ball and I don’t know whomever scored the goal to tie it and send [the game] into overtime.

– There was a strong Pittsburgh connection in the pool that day.

The Renegades were a good program in Pittsburgh that Mike Graff started. Mike was at that game. Paul Barren and a guy named Mark Sickle were reffing that game and Mike coached these guys when they were a club team in Pittsburgh. Gensheimer, Hertzberg and Tony Paxton—he came [to Bucknell] the following year as a transfer from Michigan—all these guys played under Mike.

[On The Record with Mike Graff, Chairman of USA Water Polo]

The game goes on; the problem is, we went maybe three-deep on the bench. Playing seven-minute quarters in a big pool—Bucknell’s pool was a 25 yard, shallow / deep pool—a lot of them were in those days. Pitt had one of the nicer pools and was ahead in the game.

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Bucknell AD recognition of 1977 NCAA qualifier win—and admonishment for excessive celebration after the victory. Photo Courtesy: Dan Wilson

So we were all tired, and guys were starting to foul out. I think Renner fouled out in overtime and another guy, Andy Karpuk fouled out. We went back and forth in overtime. Then, the way the Gensh described it, in sudden death overtime. They came down, we countered—I countered on Barry Ford, who got kicked out—we got the man up. Gensh was playing on the post inside, someone took the shot which hit the post, came back in front of him and he swept it in. It was a rebound off a post and quick reaction time.

It was an amazing game and win.

Ironically—you want to talk about crazy wins!—my sophomore year at Easterns, playing Brown in the finals. We were in the Mid-Atlantic Division, they were in the New England Division. At this point, Fisette’s graduated, Renner’s graduated. Mark [Gensheimer] had a bad back and wasn’t playing. He’s in the stands calling the game via WVBU radio. And we get into foul trouble as Brown’s coming back.

You can never do this today; he was on the roster but not for that tournament. In the middle of the fourth quarter with us in a one-goal game—and one person on the bench—he puts on his bathing suit and gets in the water at the end.

We end up winning by one again! [Laughs]

All these games—like you’ve seen the last few years at Easterns—these games are just ridiculously close. You’re winning and losing by one goal. Other than our senior year, when we won pretty easily [12-9 over Loyola, Illinois] the finals were games we won by one goal on crazy stuff.

– At that moment, did you have any sense that this win might be the start of a dynasty for Bucknell?

It was a momentum-builder for our team. When you go from a club program to varsity, you get a lot more recognition, outside of water polo—meaning the university itself. Bucknell might have won [Easterns] a couple times prior to [1977], but now they were a varsity program. And on a different scale. To start out with a winning program and have all the success we had—and continue it for three more years—you get the exposure of going to NCAAs and playing against the California teams.

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Photo Courtesy: Mark Gensheimer

It was different back then from now, where teams go out to California during the [regular] season and play teams out there. You got to play against better players, you got to experience a higher level of play and how to become even better.

The other thing we would do—which they don’t do today—we’d get done with the water polo season, jump into swim season. When that ended and we went right back into water polo—we’d all play in the summer. I’d play for New York Athletic Club and then I started to play in California.

– Given all the success that Bucknell has enjoyed over these many years, do you have a sense of pride and ownership for just how good Bison polo is?

You feel like a pioneer for a great program—the catalysts for a program getting off the ground. The truth is, there were some dry spots along the way after we graduated—and transition in coaching. Coach Russell had longevity; and when you have consistency and success, that feeds on itself.

With us starting out with so much success, it fed on itself—despite a bad pool. When you look at programs that have survived and the ones that haven’t—including Pitt, and UMass and Queens, Cornell and Army which are club programs—what did they have? Cornell had a bad pool, Queens, UMass, crappy pool. When you have alumni support and continuity, that’s the difference maker.

Look at UMass’ program. Almost identical to Pitt but did it for a longer period of time. Puerto Rican national team players, won all these championships and they had the same guy, Yarworth, coaching in both programs. But what ends up happening when they graduate? Did they give money to the school? Did they support [the program] when it was in trouble? No!

They went back to Puerto Rico, they don’t have the supportive alumni and the program died.

The advantage that we had was a lot of local support, which has been there for a long time. That enabled the program to survive and grow. When the pool was built—alongside the gym and the fitness center—Dan Richards, who wasn’t even a water polo player, gave money to the program.

I think back and say: Yes, we [helped] put the program on the map, and alumni support helped keep it there. The fact is, the school backed it because of the success it had over a long period of time.

– What’s amazing is that—so many years later—there’s tremendous feeling about this particular game.

It’s a small world, and—if you have an alum in your area, they’re very supportive. Especially if you have a successful program. When we have an alumni event, those who come back are the guys on the team that won. It’s not the guys on the teams with programs that didn’t do as well.

Bucknell's Rade Joksimovic

Rade Jocksimovic—with 527 goals and 714 points—is second all-time to Schulte in the Bucknell record books. Photo Courtesy: Rob Dolan

That particular game, let’s say we lost to Pitt. Who knows what would have happened with our program? We wouldn’t have gone to NCAAs four times—or won four Eastern Championships in a row.

Last year against Harvard was the first time Bucknell won an Eastern championship in a long time. [The Pitt game] it was a great catalyst to getting the program validity and keeping it going—even in the down years.

[Bison Ride Roughshod Over Undefeated Harvard in NCAA Men’s Water Polo Contest]

The difference between winning and losing—in the end is mental. To find a way to win games that you can easily lose, all of it is mental.

When you play and win games as a team—you have it built into you that, no matter what, you’ll find a way to win. That was the momentum builder for us to realize we could win these games. And we won a lot of them.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Alex Hodge

    Great article and a fun trip down memory lane. I played for Cornell 1976-80, and have enormous respect for the Bison. They were talented, well coached and tough. I will vouch for the Bisons’ ability to pull out close games — they just didn’t lose in tight games. Scott Schulte is overly modest about his role in this — he was the universal answer to any defense, and he lifted the play of his teammates.