Winning is Contagious: Ted Minnis and Charlie Owens of Harvard Men’s Water Polo

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Since Charlie Owen arrived in 2016, Harvard has gone to two NCAA tournaments and is a favorite to go again this season. Photo courtesy: Gil Talbot

CAMBRIDGE, MA. Five years ago, if there was a conversation about the East’s best men’s water polo team, it would not have included Harvard. Now, not only are the Crimson this coast’s favorite to make the 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament quarterfinals—to be held in Stockton, California—they are threatening to become the first team ever from the East to go undefeated prior to the national championship.

harvard_universitycrimsonRightly deserving credit for this change of fortune—until 2016, Harvard had never advanced to an NCAA tournament in more than four decades of intercollegiate competition; since then they’ve gone twice and have a shot at three appearances in four years—is Ted Minnis, the Crimson men’s and women’s coach. Now in his 10th year in Cambridge, the Bay Area born and bred Minnis has emerged as the dean of East Coast coaches, establishing a winning formula at Harvard that is the envy of his peers.

[Harvard Becomes an East Coast Water Polo Power, Thanks to Its West Coast Coach]

But Minnis would be the first to acknowledge that it’s his players who have put themselves in position to win; case in point is senior captain Charlie Owens. Not only has the Wilton, Connecticut native tallied more than 150 goals for his Harvard career, as a senior captain for the Crimson, he helps set the tone for his teammates. With 18 wins and no losses thus far—including four this weekend at the 2019 Harvard Invitational—it’s apparent that coach and captain have fostered a winning culture. one that may produce the best outcome in program history.

[Bears, Crimson Perfect at Harvard Invitational but Sage Hens of Pomona-Pitzer are Big Winners]

Between games this past weekend at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool, Minnis and Owen spoke with Swimming World about the team, it’s success and what the future may hold for the Crimson.

– You timed your arrival at Harvard exceptionally well; two NCAA appearances (2016, 2017) and undefeated so far in 2019. Maybe you’re the lucky charm—and why Harvard is so good.

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Banner of Harvard’s first-ever NCAA berth. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

Charlie Owens: This exactly was my lucky charm. This is what Teddy talked about when he was recruiting me, this is what I signed up for. And everyone before me in this program has done a great job of setting us up for this, and everyone who has been here since Teddy has been here has kind of laid the bricks and set this up, and now it’s awesome to be at the end of it, be on a national stage, and be winning.

– Is it fair to say that Harvard’s struggle for recognition is similar to what your previous club—Greenwich in Connecticut—encountered trying to prove to California teams that they’re good enough?

Owens: I had the luxury of growing up with an amazing coach in Ulmis Iordache, and we always played with a chip on our shoulder. But we had all year to focus on our fundamentals and get in shape, and got to go out to California and always had a great time out there.

Again, it’s nothing different than being here where we just work hard every day, play with a chip on our shoulder.

Ted Minnis: Can I say something about that?

Owens: Absolutely, yes.

Minnis: One thing about this team is our senior leadership, and it starts here with our senior captain, and everything Charlie has done as a water polo player growing up, he brings to this team. I think that’s why he leads the way he does, and how he is just the spark plug and the emotional and vocal leader on this team, along with his co-seniors.

He always does play with a chip on his shoulder—and I think he puts that chip on our shoulders; that’s what he brings to our program.

– That’s an important point because the East—and you are now an Eastern guy, whether you like it or not—is always the underdog against the West.

Minnis: I bought real estate. [Laughs]

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Harvard’s Ted Minnis. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

Owens: As one of the only East Coast guys on the team, it’s definitely nice to get here and show that recruits from the East can play. Obviously, we’re all the same team, we’re all the same family. We’re all here with open arms; we all have the same goal, same mission: we’re here to win a championship and get to NCAAs.

– That point—that you’re here to win a championship—you could probably dial back six, seven years with alums like Mike Graff, USA Water Polo board chair, lamenting: How come Harvard can’t even qualify for NCAAs? Now you’re the team everyone in the East wants to beat.

Minnis: We actually talked about this in our pregame meeting today. The lessons we’ve learned over the last three years have really helped us to be in a better place right now as we’re going through whatever you want to call it—run, streak, whatever it is this season.

Last year was tough [Harvard lost 12-10 to Princeton in the Northeast Water Polo Conference final]. I think Georg is finding that out right now. It’s really, really hard to three-peat, and I think they’re finding out that you’re going to get everyone’s best shot.

We had a pretty big win last year [an overtime win against then #3 Cal] and that put a pretty big target on our back with everyone last year too. Those lessons have really helped us. The loss last year, I know for at least the two of us, were the hardest losses of our career, and it’s motivated us. We came back in the spring, and we had our best spring we’ve had since Charlie’s been here.

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Plaque outside Minnis’ office in Blodgett

These guys are hungry and they’re humble—we talk about that—and that’s what is going to help us get wins like this [a 14-13 decision over the Colonials]. That was a hard-fought game with a very good GW team. We found a way to win, and that’s important.

– It’s not just about showing up and giving your best, it’s about succeeding at the highest level of NCAA polo.

Owens: Step one is winning our conference. We learned last year that you can’t look too far ahead, we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got to slow down, we’ve got to win our conference. Then after that, anything can happen. Just go out there, make a statement, show people we can play.

Minnis: You see this in basketball all the time. The underdogs…you’ve just got to win one game. If we are lucky enough to be the team that represents the Northeast Water Polo Conference, we’re going to go out there and hopefully hold it down for the East and play our best. And maybe we’ll shock some people along the way.

– This season has been surprising from the standpoint of upsets, but Harvard is not an unknown—and able to recruit some of the nation’s best polo players to Cambridge.

Minnis: I would say kids are committing to come to this program to do two things. One is to be a leader and to excel in the classroom and to be a leader and excel in the pool. When they come here, they work very hard. They have to know how to budget their time, they have to know how to get a good workout in and then go over. All of that helps us be better in everything we do.

The kids that are coming in as freshmen are getting better and better, and that’s part of what the evolution of this family is all about, so I’m proud of this program. It’s my kids, it’s 10 years, and we have a lot of alumni back here right now that came back to watch, and some that were in my first recruiting class and second recruiting class.

To see the smile on their faces of what we’re doing is pretty cool.

November 20, 2016;Harvard University vs UC Davis NCAA Play In Game at Spieker Aquatics, Berkeley, CA © photo by Catharyn Hayne - KLC fotos

One of the greatest moments in Harvard water polo history: 2016 NCAA win over UC Davis. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

– The continuity of the program is not just what you guys are doing in the water, but there is an upswell of support that comes from the extended family of Harvard alums—one that is both growing and expecting more from the team.

Owens: This program definitely is a family. Our alumni are all connected; we correspond, we send weekly letters explaining   how practice is going, upcoming games, how the last weekend went.

They’re all responsive and very supportive; it’s great just from top to bottom. From the recruits we have coming in all the way through alumni in the first year, 1980. Everyone’s connected, everyone’s one big family, which is awesome.