Five days a week, two hours a day for the last two months, the 28 men of the Cornell water polo club team have gathered at the pool in Teagle Hall to work on their strength and conditioning, and prepare themselves for competition.
After 14 games, the team boasted an impressive 14-0 record. Having beaten the likes of Rochester, the Rochester Institute of Technology, Colgate and Gannon College, the squad found itself on top of the New York Western Division and headed towards the Division finals of New York State. The team never knew how far it could travel on its hard work and determination, but after three more games the club squad is still alive and headed for the Collegiate Water Polo Club Nationals in Seattle, Wa., next week.
The season started off fast-paced as the Red knocked off its division competition one by one. The first challenge of the season came when it faced Rochester Institute of Technology. RIT — traditionally a strong squad — had handled the Red easily last year.
Coming into the match, RIT boasted its third-place finish in the States last season. However, returning every single member of the squad from last year, the Red now resembled a well-built, deep, cohesive machine and would not be fazed by RIT. The game was a dogfight right down to the bitter end, and it took a sudden death overtime goal for the team to finally overcome its opposition. This victory solidified the Red’s spot atop the league and gave it the momentum it would need to propel the squad into States.
That win gave the Red the second seed in the States, and the first seed in its division. The only team ranked higher was Army, the winner of last year’s tournament. The rankings would prove to hold true, as number one met number two in the finals.
Before the Red made it to the championship game, however, it would have to knock off Union and Columbia in succession. Union proved to be a breeze for the squad, as the Red cruised 14-1 in convincing and dominating fashion. This victory led to a showdown with fellow Ivy League squad Columbia.
“Columbia is a pretty good team,” said captain Peter Bowen. “It was a close game throughout, but we took control in the second half.”
Indeed it was a good game, as the Red went into the half with a 7-4 lead before cruising to victory in the second half. The final score of the contest was 13-7, as the Red defense buckled down in the second half, letting up a meager three goals.
This led to the finals showdown. Number one vs. Number two with a trip to the Collegiate Water Polo Club Nationals in Seattle, Washington on November 17 on the line.
The contest was a hard fought battle from the night before the match, as the Red squad went and scouted its opponents. Noticing that this would be a difficult match, the Red were poised and ready when game time rolled around.
“They were fast, and they had a good counter attack,” Bowen said. “But we knew if we played our game we could beat them.”
That is exactly what Cornell did, as the Red emerged from the pool 13-11 victors, upsetting the favored squad and headed for the West Coast.
Probably the biggest key to the game was the Red’s ability to take the early lead. Only a few minutes into the contest the Red found itself sporting a 4-1 lead after two strong goals apiece from Mike Emery and Lance Fenton
This lead was maintained at halftime, as the Red went into the break with a 7-4 lead after two more score from sharpshooter Emery and a goal from Jon Francis.
With a three-goal halftime lead, the Red knew Army would not let up and expected Black Knights to turn the intensity up a notch in the second half.
Once again, the Red was correct as Army came out and stung the Red with three quick goals to knot the score at 7 apiece. After a timeout, the starting unit regrouped and refocused. After a great pass from Scott Alter to Bowen, the Red regained the lead.
Tacking on goals by Collin Evans and yet another from Emery, the Red clung to a 10-8 lead going into the fourth quarter.
In the final stanza, Fenton added his third goal, and Emery tacked on an impressive fifth score as the Red went on to win 13-11.
“Everyone was real fired up, and really concentrated on this game,” said an ecstatic Bowen. “After a quick strike, we took control of the match and continued to score to maintain momentum.”
Throughout the game, and especially in the fourth quarter, goalie David Stringer kept the team in the game and made key saves to ensure the win against a great shooting Army squad.
As the Red looks forward to Nationals, it will have to rest on the keys that have made the players so successful this season: great, tight man-to-man defense.
With the change in time zone as the squad travels west, there will also be a change in the size of the pool. The larger pool in the Nationals will mean that the squad is going to have to work even harder on its strength and conditioning in the upcoming week. However, with its strong matador defense, and if the squad can take an early lead in its matches, it is almost assured of maintaining its advantage down the stretch.
Headed to Seattle, the squad boasts the 14th ranked team in the country. However, in the first round, a 2-out of 3 round robin elimination, the squad will face the fifth ranked powerhouse, Arizona. If the Red are able to emerge victorious from this match, and can knock off weaker Western Illinois, it will move onto the semifinals of the tournament and await its next opponent.
For now, the team can celebrate its achievements throughout the season and bask in the sunshine of its first trip to Nationals since they joined this league.
“We are looking forward to the match against Arizona,” added Bowen. “We have a lot of respect for them. We know our defense is strong and we know that we can play with them. If we keep it close, we can win.”
As the old adage goes, defense wins championships. With a strong effort by the Cornell “D”, this squad of savvy veterans might just be title bound.
Archived article by Peter Bernstein