The Pursuit of Emerson Sullivan, Top Water Polo Prospect

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Emerson Sullivan playing for Sleepy Hollow Aquatics. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

In a twist on the time-honored sports adage that to be the best you’ve got to play the best, Ted Bresnahan, long-time head coach for men’s water polo at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, routinely scours the country for the most talented players. In a sport dominated by Californians, that means extensive contact with coaches and players on the West Coast.

Bresnahan’s long-distance challenge: not only determine a fit for his highly competitive Division III varsity program, but also gauge if a candidate can keep up at one of America’s most demanding universities.

Once a top prospect is identified, the chase is on; in the case of Emerson Sullivan of San Anselmo, California, Bresnahan overcame a number of hurdles in reeling in one of the country’s best high school seniors.

Many hands carry the load

Like most good things, timing is critical. Bresnahan has been following Sullivan’s progress since he was 12 and a middle school student playing polo at Sleepy Hollow Aquatics (SHAQ), a club 20 miles north of San Francisco. SHAQ has produced a number of successful polo players; Dylan Woodhead, a 6-7 defender now entering his junior year at Stanford, recently saw playing time with the U.S. Senior National Team in a series of exhibition matches with Australia.

Giorgio Cico, senior captain for Hopkins, is a former SHAQ player who returns regularly as a volunteer coach. He alerted his college coach to a very fast player he worked with during summers in San Anselmo.

“‘You’ve got to get this kid,” Bresnahan said regarding conversations about Emerson, who may be the fastest swimmer ever to come to Hopkins. “Giorgio said: ’He’s got the speed to be at the right place at the right time.’”

May 5, 2018; Sir Francis Drake High School, San Anselmo, California, USA; Swimming:Marin County Athletic League Championships; Emerson Sullivan, Sir Francis Drake High School, 100 Butterfly Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne- KLC fotos

Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

According to Ken DeMont, his swim coach the past six years at North Bay Aquatics, Emerson is a rare combination of athletic ability and desire. With a 45.5 time in the 100 Freestyle, Emerson is one of the fastest swimmers on DeMont’s squad, which is highly competitive among California youth swim programs.

Despite his swimming prospects, young Sullivan wanted polo first and foremost.

“We have an understanding that water polo is his thing,” DeMont said recently in a phone conversation. “Most kids can’t pull off both sports as well as he does.”

“He’s a really unique kid,” Sullivan’s coach added.

Polo or swimming: a chicken or egg proposition

The politest way to say it is that polo is not popular with swim coaches. DeMont is the rare coach who acknowledged his athlete’s desire and was willing to nurture Emerson’s commitment to competition, rather than restrict him to a single sport.

“He’s extremely fast,” DeMont said. “His stroke is somewhat unique; it’s not necessarily how we teach the stroke. He has a higher horsepower for short distances.

The veteran swim coach explained that: “What he can do in competitive swimming translates incredibly well for the short bursts” needed for water polo.

Emerson was explicit that his is a multifaceted passion.

May 5, 2018; Sir Francis Drake High School, San Anselmo, California, USA; Swimming:Marin County Athletic League Championships; Emerson Sullivan, Sir Francis Drake High School Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne- KLC fotos

Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

“I’ve loved both swim[ming] and water polo for as long as I can remember,” he said in an email. “[It was] the friendships I formed being on a team—friendships unique in that we spent time together, working hard and learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, that we became like brothers.

“The closer we became, the more success we had.”

As the competitive stakes grew, the young athlete realized he’d have to choose: individual or team. The camaraderie of the group won out.

“Those friendships I formed through playing on team…is what led me to choose water polo as the sport I wanted to continue with in college,” he said.

Despite his athlete’s outsized potential as a swimmer,DeMont backed off from trying to change Emerson’s mind.

“I’ve been coaching a long time and I’ve had a lot of athletes,” he said. “I try to support whatever they want to do. It’s not about me.”

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A rare appearance as goalie. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Always Eastern-bound?

Given the remarkable success of polo programs at Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC, it takes a certain type of athlete to look East for college.

According to Emerson’s mother Rebecca, her son was that type of player.

“It was clear as the college application process was moving along that Emerson knew that Hopkins was the place for him,” she wrote in an email. “[It’s] very far away, but his dad and I have had Emerson’s whole life to prepare for his college choice—and it is very much in keeping with who he is.”

With only 50 teams competing for the NCAA men’s title and 4.5 scholarships annually available at Division I schools, even top prospects have to fight for offers. With an analytical approach that belies his age, Emerson weighed a decision with life-long implications. He narrowed his college search to top-tier academic schools featuring both strong engineering programs and competitive water polo.

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Emerson and Rebeca Sullivan Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

As a DIII school, Hopkins does not offer athletic scholarships, but it offers perhaps something even more valuable to a top student like Emerson, one of the class valedictorians at Sir Francis Drake High School: spectacular academics. In the most recent U.S. News and World Reports ranking of top American universities, Johns Hopkins is 11th.

“I had to look at each program to decide whether the community was right for me, something I did through talking to coaches and players, researching student life, and going on visits to a selected few,” he said. “Once I had done all this it was clear that Johns Hopkins was my top choice.”

A meeting with Bresnahan in Baltimore clinched the decision.

“I had the opportunity to meet Coach Ted in person,” Emerson said. “I immediately recognized he was a unique type of coach who developed special bonds with his players, something important to long-term success.”

The California Factor

Last year, 15 of the 18 players on Bresnahan’s squad were from California, so Emerson Sullivan is sure to be in familiar company in the Hopkins’ pool. The program’s success is entirely intertwined with the increased presence of West Coast athletes. To keep pace with Eastern powers Brown, Bucknell, George Washington, Harvard, Princeton, St. Francis Brooklyn and Wagner, the Blue Jays have had to mine talent streams outside the East.

The Blue Jays have never qualified for an NCAA varsity water polo berth, but in 2015 they came tantalizingly close, dropping a 7-6 decision to Princeton in the CWPA Men’s Water Polo Championship, a loss that denied Hopkins a trip to NCAAs. Since that outsized success Bresnahan has looked to close the gap with the rest of the East.

“We mix our best East Coast players from some of the best West Coast players,” he said. “They’re not gonna play at the top three or four school out there but will play for the top schools here. We try and pull in a couple of those guys.”

Barring injury, Sullivan will give the Blue Jays an immediate boost. Unlike prominent California programs, a freshman can greatly impact the fortunes of Eastern squads, as was demonstrated last year when Jasmin Kolasinac joined the Wagner men’s squad and almost led the Seahawks to an NCAA berth in the program’s second year of existence.

A significant challenge for a revamped Hopkins squad is the expected improvement of Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference rival the U.S. Naval Academy, thanks to the return of Luis Nicolao. A star with the Middies in the early 1990s when Navy went regularly to the NCAA tournament, in two decades as head coach for Princeton, his men’s and women’s squads won almost 900 matches (868-316). He took the Tigers to a combined seven NCAA tournaments (four mens, three womens).

Nicolao made a dramatic switch last January, jumping ship to revive a proud Navy program that had gone 52-59 in the four seasons since Mike Schofield left in 2013, including 11-25 in conference play.

“I’ve known Louie since he was a plebe,” Bresnahan said. “That Navy program will be ready and in as good a shape as they’ve been in the last four or five years.”

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Sullivan with Sir Francis Drake senior teammates on signing day. Photo Courtesy: Nate Severin

A long way from home

Recruiting West Coast polo players creates a long-distance relationship for students and parents alike. Rebecca Sullivan said in an email that—like her adventurous son—she’s ready for the challenge.

“We knew that he would be looking for intense academics and athletics with other kids who wanted to work hard while really savoring and enjoying college… and Hopkins was the place for him,” she wrote. “Having a kid who is so happy with his college choice makes the fact that he will be all the way across the country so much easier to bear.”

Whatever the future holds for young Emerson and his Hopkins teammates, they’re likely to prize their shared polo experience.

“The players that I got to know all seemed genuinely happy with their Hopkins decision,” Emerson said. “I saw how close everyone on the team was to each other and how much fun they had together.

“I look forward to playing for Hopkins and join a great and unique group of teammates and coaches.”

4 comments

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Michael:

      As you noted, my comprehension of distances in swimming is APPALLING. The 45.5 time at 100M would not only make young Emerson Sullivan the fastest freestyler in the on North Bay Aquatics, he’d be the fastest in the WORLD!

      The right distance is 100 yards, and the edit has been made.

      Thanks for reading,

      Your correspondent

  1. avatar
    Laura Woodhead

    Great article about an incredible young man who also was named Valedictorian last night of the Class of 2018 at Sir Francis Drake HS. Congratulations Emerson!

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Laura:

      Thank you for your kind words. I had been searching for a story about a top-prospect’s recruitment by an East Coast school, and—as a fan of the body for work by Hopkin’s coach Bresnahan—writing about Emerson fell into my lap!

      I did get the word about his selection as class valedictorian—quite the honor for an athlete who is going places… quickly!

      With thanks,

      Your correspondent