Road to Division III Collegiate Men’s Water Polo Championship; Easterns Take Place This Weekend in PA

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MIT's Miller Geschke has been a sparkplug for the Engineers—and hopes to lead them to a second-straight DIII Easterns Championship. Photo Courtesy: MIT Athletics

This weekend in Bridgeville, PA, the annual Division III Eastern Championship will take on an entirely new significance. Whichever two of six contenders makes the final at noon on Sunday will not only be playing for a regional title, they will potentially represent half of the Final Four that will compete in December for the first-ever the Division III Collegiate Championship.

diii-men-easterns-oct19The creation of the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA), the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) and USA Water Polo, this new DIII championship—which will be hosted by the first-place finisher in the SCIAC tournament next month—represents a major step forward for collegiate polo. With two teams from each coast—the two finalists in the SCIAC tournament will complete the other half of the bracket—the Division III Championship represents a major piece of hardware available for the fastest growing aspect of competitive American polo.

“In my discussions with athletic directors considering the addition of water polo as a varsity sport, the opportunity for a meaningful postseason championship is a major part of their decision,” explained Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Commissioner Dan Sharadin. “The establishment of this championship removes a key stumbling block for these schools. In addition, our Division III members are excited about the chance to compete against ‘like’ institutions for a national championship.”

In a recent interview, Felix Mercado, head coach for the men’s and women’s programs at Brown and president of the Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches (ACWPC) explained that this is a move to grow the sport from the bottom up.

[Brown’s Felix Mercado and Pomona-Pitzer’s Alex Rodriguez: Growing Water Polo]

“I think the only way to protect DI programs is to build the foundation that DIIIs and DIIs are adding to,” he said last weekend at the Harvard Invitational. “And eventually I believe we will get to that situation.”

MIT is the favorite; the rest of the field is anyone’s guess

There are six teams entered in this year’s DIII Eastern Championship—a tournament that has been taking place for more than three decades—Austin College, Connecticut College, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Penn State Behrend and host Washington & Jefferson. Of the six, MIT (7-8; 1-4 NWPC), enjoying a strong start under new Head Coach Austin Ringheim, is likely the strongest contender for the title. In Clyde Huibregtse, Miller Geschke and Ward Weldon, the Engineers—defending DIII champs—have three strong scoring options, while Hayden Niederreiter is a reliable option in goal.

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MIT opens Saturday morning against fifth-seed Washington & Jefferson. The Presidents (2-17; 1-5 MAWPC) have struggled this season; their only two wins came via a forfeited game against Gannon in September and a 16-11 win over Monmouth—another DIII programs that was unable to compete this weekend. With a roster of 20, Head Coach Nikola Malezanov
 has twice as much depth as last year. Unsurprisingly, half of his players are freshmen; goalie Nick Spehar as well as attackers Ian Geister and Dylan Gwinn are the only seniors on the roster.

The most intriguing match-up of the day is #2 seed Johns Hopkins and #6 Austin College. Like MIT, the Blue Jays (6-16; 2-6 MAWPC)—also under a new coach, former assistant Max Schlegel—have some experienced attackers in Finn Banks and Emerson Sullivan while freshman Chris Freese has been a great addition to the Hopkins attack. Unlike the Engineers, the Blue Jays have little experience in goal; Max Fleming is a walk-on who is still learning the position. He’s getting better every game but there’s a reason that only one opponent—Claremont-Mudd-Scripps—has been held to single digits in scoring.

Austin (0-14) is seeded sixth for a reason, but their record is misleading. They’ve played competitively against DIII opponents, and dropped a 15-10 decision to Hopkins in both team’s season-opening match. Head Coach Mark Lawrence has scoring depth in Robert Griffin, Andrew Pope and Max Wade. A second-year program, the Kangaroos have youth and depth on their side, and are due for a win. It would be a major upset if they took down the Blue Jays—but it would not be a shocker.

[La Salle Men’s Water Polo Roars Back, Beats Austin 14-11 at Navy Invitational]

The other combatants are #3 Connecticut College (3-7; 2-4 MAWPC) and #4 Penn State (4-8). They will not play each other on Saturday; the tournament is set up as a bracket, so Penn State will play the host Presidents while the Camels will play the Engineers.

The Nittany Lions are coming off a huge win last Friday against Iona. They beat the Gaels 12-11—their first-ever win over a DI program—and are sure to be fired up behind Matt Olimsky, their star goalie and leading scorer Isaak Hatopp.

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Hopkins’ Emerson Sullivan hopes to lead his team to a DIII Final Four. Photo Courtesy: Johns Hopkins Athletics

Connecticut Head Coach Matt Anderson’s squad will face Austin; the Camels have the one-two scoring punch of Mike Gertsik and Arturo Freitas, but have limited depth with 10 players on their roster. The match-up with the Kangaroos should be a good one; the Camels will also play Hopkins, while the Nittany Lions will face MIT.

At stake: an Eastern DIII title and a chance to shine on a national stage

Whoever comes out first in the bracket that includes MIT, Penn State and W& J will face the top team of Austin, Connecticut and Hopkins. The bonus; those two finalist will be ticketed for the DIII Collegiate Championship on December 7 and 8 on the West Coast at a location to be determined at the SCIAC men’s tournament, which will take place from November 22-24 at the two top finishers in the conference regular season.

[SCIAC teams agree to forgo NCAA tournament for inaugural DIII National Championships]

There is a wrinkle; even though the SCIAC has given up their automatic qualifier for the NCAA men’s tournament, if either Johns Hopkins or MIT were to unexpectedly win their conference tournament—the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC) or the Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) respectively—they will have to decide if they will take those conferences’ NCAA berths instead of the DIII Championship berth.