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Men’s water polo tries to rise from obscurity into national spotlight

Delaney Walsh | Photo Editor
Delaney Walsh | Photo Editor

At GW, the merry-go-round of rebuilding seasons and coaching changes means winning teams are hard to come by.

But men’s water polo, soaring up the national rankings at No. 19, has knocked off one ranked opponent after another. The Colonials beat No. 20 Johns Hopkins on Saturday and sit at 9-2 after upsetting then-No. 18 Bucknell the weekend before.

Led by a rising sophomore star from Serbia and a senior with a collection of awards, GW is trying to make its mark as a water polo powerhouse. But that still leaves fans wondering: Why is this obscure sport worth watching and how is GW succeeding?

‘It’s quick, it’s intense, it’s fun to watch’
Water polo may seem strange to those who are unfamiliar with it – the College Water Polo Association guide even includes two references to the lack of polo horses in the game. But it is easy to follow for those familiar with the popular sports it draws from.

In a nutshell, water polo supplies near-constant action and underwater wrestling matches, combined with high scores and intense physical demands.

Many features of the game make it perfect for casual fans to watch. Each quarter is only eight minutes long, and play rarely stops, meaning that it takes less than an hour to see an entire game.

“It’s quick, it’s intense, it’s fun to watch. It’s really easy to get into and once you get into, it’s really fun to follow,” sophomore goalkeeper Connor Dillon said.

Plays are set up with perimeter players organized around a center, just like in basketball. Players make a series of quick passes and score into a net guarded by a goalie, like in lacrosse. There is an obvious connection to swimming, as players cannot touch the floor of the pool, but with a lesser-known element of wrestling: Water polo is intensely physical and involves plenty of contact between players.

This combination of elements is what makes the sport incredibly demanding.

“It’s one of the hardest sports out there and a lot of people don’t know that until they try it, and then they’ll say that they can’t do it,” said senior Daniel Tyner.

The Colonials are riding a high note that mimics the sport nationwide. The CWPA has seen membership climb from 215 organizations to 280 over the last decade.

“Right now I know that in California, it’s the highest growing sport out of any sport, and one thing I like about it is how it combines other sports and then puts it in the water, in terms of the rules and the way goals are scored,” Tyner said.

Dillon said he believes that student awareness of the “still developing” sport will grow, especially as water polo becomes less tethered to the west coast. Still, the CWPA’s entire Top 10 ranking is made up of California-based squads.

A fast start in the pool for GW
GW is off to its hottest start in head coach Scott Reed’s 15 years with the team.

GW is 9-2, and as of Wednesday, gained a spot on the CWPA Varsity Top 20 list for the first time since 2008, when the team was ranked 18th in a preseason poll.

“The overall success is because these guys are fitting all the pieces together, both on the offensive side of things and on defense. Defense was a big problem for us last year and they’re starting to get it,” Reed said.

The team cemented its ranking on Saturday with a 13-11 win over No. 20 Johns Hopkins, a CWPA Southern Division rival.

GW’s success has been driven by two standouts this year. Senior Daniel Tyner, who leads the team with 29 goals, has won two Southern Division Player of the Week awards this season. Sophomore Bogdan Petkovic scored five goals against Hopkins, matching his career high, after winning the CWPA Southern Division Rookie of the Year last season.

The Colonials have reached new heights this year, rallying after a disappointing 12-16 record last season. Every non-goalie on the team has scored, leading to a team average of 14.1 goals per game. The Colonials have also allowed, on average, fewer than 10 goals in each contest – down almost two points from the team’s average goals-against at this point last year.

Their recent 15-14 win in a revenge match against then-No. 18 Bucknell, who beat GW in double overtime in last year’s Southern Division playoffs, was particularly satisfying for the team, which plays the Bison once more this season.

“Nobody wants individual awards, we all want team success and I think that’s kind of a culture that has changed since I’ve been here, since when I was a freshman until now. I think that’s kind of why we’ve come together as a team,” Tyner said.

The win over Hopkins showed the Colonials’ significant progression from last year, when they lost twice to Hopkins, 19-11 and 16-7. The team never trailed the Blue Jays in Saturday’s game after junior Ridvan Pehlivan netted the first goal of the match 32 seconds in.

The Colonials will play Cal Baptist University on Thursday in Riverside, Calif., pushing to improve their ranking over a difficult slate of games to come. The team plays on the road for the rest of the season, leading up to the southern division championships in Annapolis, Md. in early November.

“There is not a single game that we can say is easy,” said Reed. “It’s going to be a very exciting remainder of the season.”

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