Princeton’s Sean Duncan & St. Francis’ Will Lapkin: From SoCal to New York City

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Princeton's Sean Duncan and St. Francis Brooklyn's Will Lapkin share a lifelong connection through water polo. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

PRINCETON, NJ. Following a tough 13-5 loss to Princeton on the road—a match moved from Brooklyn Heights due to a faulty heater in the St. Francis Brooklyn pool—Terrier Will Lapkin met up with his long-time friend and sometimes opponent Sean Duncan of the Tigers.

Teammates on the Mater Dei High School squad that in 2015 took down Ben Hallock and two-time defending California Intercollegiate Federation South Section champs Harvard-Westlake on their way to a CIF SS title, Duncan and Lapkin came East for their college careers. Both have enjoyed success and disappointment on this coast. Lapkin, one of the most creative players on Head Coach Bora Dimitrov’s squad, has likely been frustrated by the Terriers inability to advance to a Northeast Water Polo Conference final, falling a game short the past three years.

[Will Lapkin, Magician with the Water Polo Ball]

Duncan has had his own challenges. In 2017, Princeton opened up strong against Harvard in the NWPC title match, with the 6-4 center dominating play early. As the game went along, not only did the host team rally, the referees swallowed their whistles as Duncan was regularly assaulted in front of the Crimson cage. In the wake of a dispiriting 12-11 sudden death overtime loss, Princeton Head Coach Luis Nicolao quit for the top polo job at Navy. In 2018, Duncan, feeling the impact of years of punishment, elected for surgery on both hips, sidelining him for the Tigers’ revenge win over the Crimson in last season’s NWPC final.

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Will Lapkin. Photo Courtesy: St. Francis Brooklyn Athletics

Healthy now, Duncan and Lapkin spoke with Swimming World about their friendship, their shared polo success, and what their respective futures hold.

– You’ve been friends for… ever?

Sean Duncan: Probably since 2011 in middle school. We didn’t go to the same school but we played against each other. He was on SoCal, I was on United. Through [playing in] tournaments and water polo is a small community, we just got to know each other.

Then I found out Will was going to Mater Dei for high school and [our friendship] kept going from there.

– That was when Mater Dei had a powerhouse program led by Chris Segesman.

Will Lapkin: We did really well, we had a lot of guys who were really close with each other and played together for a long time. I didn’t get there until a year later than Sean, but was there when we won our senior year.

Duncan: I was still on JV when they won our freshman year [2012]. Our sophomore and junior years were when Harvard-Westlake won, and then senior year we brought it back.

– Johnny Hooper and Ben Hallock, now with the U.S. Senior National Team were at Harvard-Westlake then and the Wolverines won back-to-back CIF tournaments.

Lapkin: The CIF is the biggest tournament of California. We took down Harvard-Westlake; we took down big Ben Hallock. It felt pretty good—one of my best memories to this point.

[On Deck With Ben Hallock of Stanford and the U.S. Men’s Water Polo Team]

– And now here on the East Coast you’re still friends.

Duncan: I was in New York this summer for an internship and got to live with Will. It’s funny how water polo—even the guys on our team that don’t play in school anymore and are off doing other things, they’re still pretty close. When Will and I go back home we have a core group of nine guys that we all still hang out [together].

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Sean Duncan. Photo Courtesy: Beverly Schaefer

A lot of it is memories from way back when, grinding on the pool deck in practice. It brought us all really close, and I think it’s going to continue even past water polo. Five, 10 years in the future even when we’re all doing our own things, we’re always going to be friends.

– You’ve played against each other a number of times during your respective careers in the East.

Lapkin: It’s a lot easier to guard Sean just ‘cause I know him so well. [Laughs]

We know each other’s tendencies. A couple of kids on [Princeton] besides Sean—we’ve all be playing with each other for so long, we know what we’re looking to do, we know pretty much all about each other.

– Water polo is a great connector—and there is a strong bond with the St. Francis program wherever you and your teammates go.

Lapkin: I’ll definitely be a Terrier for life, but who knows where I’ll end up? It all depends on work and where academics take me.

– One of the great advantages of schools like Princeton or St. Francis is the great work opportunities in the New York City metropolitan region.

Duncan: I’m going to be in New York after graduation. I won’t be on the West Coast—I have my family and a lot of my friends there—but for me, one of the cool things is through water polo I was able to experience a whole different part of the world, a new culture and meet all these new people.

It’s an opportunity for me to see what it’s like to be an adult out in the workforce, while still being able to play water polo at a high level. It’s an advantageous situation in the grand scheme of things.

It would be great to practice 2, 3, 4 hours a day all through summer so that when you can hit the ground running when the season starts. In a way, having a summer where it was up to me to stay in shape, to keep up my skills in water polo makes me go back to the stuff Segesman taught us at Mater Dei—all of the hard work when it’s six in the morning and I have eight hours of work that day—you don’t always want to get up go swim or play. But I do, and I did over the summer.

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New York City. Photo Courtesy: Forbes

That’s just a good life habit. It doesn’t matter how long you play water polo, there’s going to come a day where you have to be an active adult. Just being a college water polo athlete has set me up so when the time comes to hang up the cap, I’ll still continue a healthy lifestyle.

Lapkin: I agree with what Sean’s saying—everything we’re taught in water polo can relate to some aspect of your life, whether it’s being late to class, being late to work, even though you hate your boss, showing up with a smile on your face ready to go and work hard. We all learn that through sports and it’s really cool to bring that into our lives after we graduate.