Twenty-seven and 0? Wow! But Harvard Men’s Water Polo Has More to Prove

WPM vs. Cal Luthern and McKendree
Harvard's Noah Hodge has been an essential part of Harvard's perfect season. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

Ten years ago, Mike Graff, Harvard ’73 and board chair for USA Water Polo, might never have envisioned a time when his beloved Crimson would not only run the table but be expected to secure a third trip to the national championship tournament in four years. With a surprisingly easy 14-5 win over crosstown rival MIT at Blodgett Pool, though, the Harvard men’s water polo team wrapped up a signal accomplishment: the first-ever undefeated regular season in Eastern collegiate Division I water polo history.

Asked to comment, Graff said simply, “Great regular season. All credit to coaches and players. On to the conference championships.”

harvard_universitycrimsonThat understated response tacitly acknowledged a remarkable change in Harvard polo fortunes under Head Coach Ted Minnis. Graff was part of an influential group of Crimson water polo alums that in 2010 hired the former Stanford Club coach, and he is not alone in marveling at the team’s success. Mike Byrd, who captained the Crimson in 2007, when they went 14-16 overall, considered how much difference a decade under Minnis has made.

“The biggest change is that Ted has transformed the team into a program,” Byrd said in an email. “He has put together a great coaching staff that you see scouting and recruiting at [Junior Olympics] and other big youth tournaments…. It seems that every class coming in has more talent than the class going out, even with graduating All-Americans.”

The best-ever Crimson record heretofore was 27-7 in 2016, which was also the first time Harvard qualified for NCAAs after four decades of futility. Minnis’ men have now totaled 20 or more wins over the past six years and gone to NCAAs in both 2016 and 2017. Given the program’s success in 2019, Harvard will be favored in the upcoming Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) Tournament. The Crimson are no longer the hunter but the hunted.

Unbeaten… for the moment

Unprecedented in the East, going undefeated in a season is not uncommon on the West Coast. In the past decade, UCLA (2015) and USC (2008, 2012) went unscathed in run-ups to national titles. Still, the accomplishment this season by Minnis’ team is remarkable.

Their run was not without obstacles, however. Harvard persevered in seven contests where the difference was one or two goals.

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Friends and rivals: Harvard’s Ted Minnis and Brown’s Felix Mercado.

At their own invitational in October, for instance, the Crimson beat George Washington by a single goal, before weathering an epic match-up with Division III power Pomona-Pitzer in which the Crimson prevailed in sudden death overtime. The following day they fell behind by three goals before rallying to beat Bucknell by one.

Include Felix Mercado, coach of NWPC rival Brown, as a believer in what Minnis and his team have accomplished. But, he says, “I didn’t expect them to go undefeated, especially when they went to California,” referring to a long weekend in Santa Clara for the Julian Fraser Memorial. “They beat San Jose State without Noah Hodge, which is a testament to their back-up goalie (Nathan Wu) and their team. That won me over as far as saying that this team is legit.”

[Harvard’s Nathan Wu Named October 28 NWPC Defensive Player & Rookie of the Week]

Mercado, who has faced Harvard’s men twice each year since taking over at Brown in 2007, observed that a number of the Crimson’s games could have gone either way. Putting his opponent’s success in context, he noted, “[T]hey’ve gone through the gauntlet and survived more than run over anyone,” he noted. “A missed call here, a missed shot there…maybe they have two or three losses.”

“The fact [is] they have the best goalie on the East Coast in Hodge,” Mercado added. “They have arguably one of the best shooters in Dennis Blyashov. Their depth is their strength.”

The Brown coach—whose team would only face Harvard if both teams advance to the NWPC final on November 24 at MIT’s Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center—challenged the rest of his conference to rise up against the Crimson.

“They’re a very good team and they’re the favorites,” he said. “It’s up to all of us to beat them—not just Brown but Princeton, St. Francis…”

Change that resonates on multiple levels

It’s no coincidence that Harvard’s success followed a major change in the conference structure for Eastern men’s polo. A reorganization prior to the 2016 season by the CWPA created two distinct entities out of what was once a 27-team behemoth. The new Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Water Polo Conferences were also granted automatic berths at NCAAs. Previously, only one Eastern team was eligible to compete for the national championship.

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Dennis Blyashov. Photo Courtesy: Harvard Athletics

According to Dan Sharadin, long-time commissioner of the CWPA, the realignment had a distinct impact on the quality of Eastern polo. In an email, he explained that traditional configurations, such as Ivy League squads Brown, Harvard and Princeton, now in the NWPC, were honored, and geographic proximity was considered as well, e.g., Harvard versus MIT. Long-standing rivalries important to alumni, such as Princeton versus Navy, or the Judge Cup between Fordham and Iona, are maintained through non-conference scheduling and select invitationals.

[MPSF Breakup Causes a Chain Reaction In the East]

Sharadin notes that, since the split, programs at George Washington and Fordham in the MAWPC and Harvard in the NWPC have risen to the top of their respective conferences. More traditional powers, such as Princeton and Bucknell, also have enjoyed continued success.

“Like any sport, water polo has ebbs and flows—rises and descents,” he said. “Prior to the formation of the NWPC and MAWPC, Brown won the Eastern Championship [in 2014], breaking a long streak of not being conference champion.”

The reconfiguration of teams began prior to the “split,” Sharadin said. As an example, he pointed to the emergence of Wagner, which in 2017 advanced to the MAWPC final in the program’s second year of existence, of how parity has taken hold in the East.

Alumni support and a little ‘tude

But this doesn’t fully explain how Harvard’s success has endured through multiple seasons, and resulted in an unblemished record in 2019. Byrd attributes this to the extraordinary support provided by the Friends of Harvard Water Polo, a group of program alumni. The group underwrites Minnis’s salary, allowing him to recruit some of the country’s best prospects.

“As alumni, we feel a tremendous sense of pride with what Ted and everyone has accomplished recently,” said Byrd. “It’s taken hard work and support from a lot of people to get to this point, most notably the Friends of Harvard Water Polo and its president Andy Freed (’90).”

But Byrd, now an assistant coach with a new women’s program at Long Island University, is conscious of how fleeting polo success can be.

20191020 WPM vs. Bucknell

Harvard’s Austin Sechrest always play with passion. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

“Water polo teams are never 100% safe from the chopping block, as we’ve seen with some very successful programs over the years on the East Coast, so it’s imperative to have that past groundwork and future support.”

Part of what keeps his team sharp is the attitude that Minnis inspires. The cliché of the embattled yet aggressive underdog is not one usually associated with one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions. But it’s a staple for Harvard polo; so much so that in a recent interview the Crimson coach praised Charlie Owens, currently a senior co-captain, for this very attitude.

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

“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, he brings to this team,” Minnis said. “He always plays with a chip on his shoulder—and I think he puts that chip on our shoulders; that’s what he brings to our program.”

In the postseason it’s always 0-0

Coach Mercado of Brown knows that whatever his rival is preaching to his players now, it starts with this: “The regular season means nothing!”

“I feel that Teddy’s going to prepare them where the undefeated season doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everyone’s starting with the same record.”

“[B]ecause they’ve struggled and barely won some of these games, they can use that for motivation. If they were winning every game by four or five goals, maybe they’d be more vulnerable. The fact that they’re not dominating everyone, it allows [Minnis] to use a ‘We’ve still got work to do’ mindset.”

Even though the Crimson are favored in the postseason, Mercado expects that underdog attitude will remain a big part of their approach.

Underdogs? The cradle of Presidents and Nobel laureates? Hey, whatever works.

With Chip Brenner

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Anonymous

    You boys rock!!! So proud of all you, especially my grandson, Noah Hodge. What an awesome honor to be the best goalie. Grandma Hodge

  2. avatar
    Anonymous

    T-Dawg doin what he said he would! Best coach ever! Champion inside and out. Harvard is LUCKY to have this man grace them with his presence!
    Ted Minnis would have done the same thing no matter where he coached! Congratulations Harvard on being smart and choosing this indomitable Titan of a man. A leader who inspires and truly brings out the champions in his charge!
    Never doubted you my brother. You are my hero! Miss you very much.