February 15, 2012

Exploring Club Sports: The World of Water Polo

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It’s a noteworthy year for the Cornell club water polo. While the men’s team brought its season to a close last semester — finishing second in the New York regional championships with a record of 7-1 in the division — the women’s team is now gearing up for another run at the national championships.

Water polo had varsity standing at Cornell a decade ago, until changes in the program moved it to the club level. Princeton, Brown and Harvard are now the only Ivy schools that still support varsity water polo programs. This hybrid sport draws athletes with a variety of backgrounds, from swimmers who started playing the sport in college, to those who have been playing the sport since middle school. Rookies are quickly taught the rules of the game — six players have four seven-minute quarters to put the ball in the back of the net, without touching the bottom of the pool and only using one hand to catch and throw the ball.

“It’s something you can learn,” said senior co-captain Brie Reid. “A lot of our players that came to nationals with us last year hadn’t played before coming to college.”

The team has also attracted more than just a uniform type of player.

“We have a large range of skills on the team,” added junior co-captain Dylan Spitz. “Mario Martoni is one player who has been playing the game for 12 years, and then we have people who started playing this semester.”

Martoni, a graduate student, is a former player of the Italian National League and an integral part of the Cornell club water polo program. For the last two years he has been the men’s leading scorer, and was given first team recognition this past season for the New York Division. He has also helped to coach the women’s team to victory, earning the New York Division’s Coach of the Year Award in 2011.

Spitz, sophomore Evan Ciecimierski and freshman Henri Frey are among the main contributors to the team’s offense. Leading the defense this past season were senior Doug Greer — who earned second team recognition for the division — and junior co-captain Tyler Marrero.

Cornell played rival Columbia in this past season’s division finals after defeating Army in the semifinals. In 2010, the Red lost to Columbia in the finals by only one goal.

“Going into the [finals of the] championship tournament, we were optimistic about our chances of … winning the division,” Marrero said. “We were ready for another close game.”

The Red eventually fell to Columbia in a match that was decided in the final quarter. With hopes of attending nationals dashed, the team went away knowing that it would have to bring everything it had to the Ivy Championship tournament, where it would get a chance to face its rivals once more.

In the 2010 tournament Cornell — with only one substitute — came away with a single loss, falling to Harvard’s varsity program. The 2011 men’s Ivy competition was hosted by Harvard, and was only the second time that all of the Ancient Eight came together to compete.  This time around, Cornell was able to bring a deep roster, but the absence of two key starters undoubtedly had an impact on the team’s finish.

“[The tournament] provided great playing time for some of our younger guys but resulted in a seventh place finish,” Marrero said. “Despite losing our first two games to Harvard and Yale — who is ranked second nationally in Club level — we rebounded for a good win against Penn.”

The spring is the off season for the men’s team, as practice time becomes infrequent due to limited pool time. Time is now focused on the women’s side, as the team is preparing for its first tournament of the season on February 25 and 26. The team will host a home tournament the weekend of March 31, and will then go on to participate in the Ivy League tournament and the New York Division Championships.

Last year Cornell defeated Columbia in the finals of the N.Y. Division Championships in double overtime to earn its place in at nationals. Reid was awarded the Most Valuable Player award for the division, as well as first team nomination. Senior Yiwen Ng was also recognized as first team for the division, and senior captain Diana Foster and Ph.D student Karen Swetland were awarded second team recognition.

This year has potential to be one of the best for Cornell, as the juniors of the nationally competing team of last year are now this year’s starting-line seniors. Nationals this year will be held in Tallahassee, Fla. in the first weekend of May.

The success of the team is due in part to its great team chemistry.

“I love the sport, but I love the team,” Reid said. “The group of girls we play with are so supportive and a lot of fun to play with.”

“Water polo is like swimming with a kick,” added senior co-captain Diana Foster. “[The team] is such a group of characters … everyone has their place on the team.”

Both teams’ accomplishments come without the widespread fan base and varsity status of some of the teams they oppose.

“In California, it’s almost as big as football,” Spitz explained. “I started playing because all my friends in high school started playing … people would go to water polo games because that was the thing to do. Until it becomes a mainstream sport in high school [in the area], it won’t become a mainstream college sport.”

Yet on both the men’s and women’s sides, Cornell certainly has made a name for itself in the New York division. It will be exciting to see what the women’s team can do this year as the main portion of their season kicks off.

Original Author: Rebecca Velez