Men’s Water Polo Earns Second at Nationals in Best Finish Since 2003

By Emily Bustard

The Men’s Water Polo Club team took second place at the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Division III National Club Championship at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota last weekend (Oct. 31-Nov. 1) with a performance to finish off their 2015 season on a high note.

During the regular season, the team participates in the CWPA New England Division, which allows them to face off against Dartmouth, Boston College, Boston University, Yale, and the University of Connecticut (whose team is co-ed). Boston University and Yale hosted tournaments on the weekends of Sept. 26-27 and Oct. 10-11 respectively. Middlebury hosted the league championship tournament on Oct. 24-25, and finished fifth in the league.

The Panthers’ status as the only Division III team this year in the New England Division earned them an automatic spot in the Division III National Club Championship. There, Middlebury represented New England as one of the nine teams that contended for the National title.
The team entered the weekend hoping to improve upon their third place finish in last year’s tournament at Bowdoin College.

“Though we all knew it was a long shot, we flew to Minneapolis to win Nationals,” said Brian Rowett ’16, one of Middlebury’s three captains.

The Panthers came out strong in their first game against Emory University on Saturday, Oct. 31 to notch a 21-11 win. Middlebury’s strong teamwork gave them an edge in this game; nearly half the team — seven of 15 players — contributed to the scoring effort.

J Whelan ’16, one of Rowett’s co-captains, led the team with seven goals. These combined with Jacob Epstein ’16’s five goals, Kevin Benscheidt ’17’s three, Rowett’s two, Ben Weaver ’16, the other co-captain’s two goals, as well as single goals from Jack Ravery ’17 and Eli Jones ’16 for a total of 21.

This momentum carried over to the Panthers second, closer, victory that day against Grinnell College (16-13). Epstein and Whelan again scored five and seven goals respectively, and were named co-players of the game. Rowett (2), Benscheidt (1) and Weaver (1) also outsmarted Grinnell’s goalie to cushion Middlebury’s win.

“[The] team played [their] best game of  the year against Grinnell,” said Head Coach Brian Goodwin. “They looked really good in all areas.”

On Sunday, Nov. 1, the Panthers played Washington University in St. Louis (Wash. U), the defending co-champion for the first-place trophy. (Wash. U split last year’s championship with U.C. Santa Cruz after a power outage at Bowdoin prevented the final game from being played). The Bears, however, defeated Middlebury 14-9 for their second straight National title (which they now hold on their own for the first time).

Taylor Moore ’18 used his speed to win each of the four sprints, and secure possession of the ball for Middlebury at the start of each quarter. Benscheidt kept the Panthers in the game from the start, scoring his first of two goals in the first quarter.

Middlebury trailed by just one point at the end of the first, but Wash. U seized the chance to pull ahead in the second, making it 7-1 by the half.

Middlebury fought back for the rest of the game. Working to score two goals each, Whelan and Rowett brought the score to a close 9-5 by the end of the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Benscheidt and Epstein added one goal apiece. Whelan’s last two goals, one of which came from a penalty shot, rounded out Middlebury’s scoring as the game wound down.

Despite Weaver’s defense in the center position, the Panthers could not stop player of the game Mike Lee, who notched 7 individual goals for the Bears.

Goalie Ethan Strayer ’16 anchored the Panther defense, saving seven of Wash. U’s 21 shots on goal, and adding to his 26 total saves in the tournament.

The Panthers’ failure to capitalize on offensive opportunities — as highlighted by their conversion of just two out of five extra-man situations — placed them at a deficit they couldn’t come back from. The game ended with a score of 14-9.

“This was likely the team’s best chance in many years to bring home the title, so naturally it was disappointing to lose in the championship game,” Rowett said. “That said, we played incredibly well for the vast majority of the tournament.”

“It was a tough loss in finals,” Coach Goodwin echoed, “but we … played very well to get to the championship game.”

Middlebury’s runner-up finish in this tournament marks the program’s second-best performance at a National Collegiate Club Championship ever, besides their first place finish in the 2003 National Championship.

The CWPA chose Epstein and Whelan for the First All-Tournament Team, and Goodwin, who has been with the program since it was founded in 1999, was named the Outstanding Coach of the tournament.

“I’m proud to bring home the second place title and to be part of a very dynamic team,” Rowett concluded.