"It's a first for everybody." So says senior John Hansen, co-captain and one of the prime movers behind Harvard's latest varsity sport--water polo.
For the first time this year, the men's water polo team--elevated from club status last April--will compete at the full varsity level. The years of borrowing cars for road trips, struggling to fill out a schedule with often mediocre teams and rallying friends to come out for the game are over.
"It's going to make a difference," promises rookie coach Stephen Pike, who served as adviser to the water polo club for the last two years. "There's going to be more of a commitment to water polo."
When Hansen, fellow co-captain Juan Enriquez and last year's captain Ethan Cruvant decided to tackle the University's bureaucratic maze, they had little hope that their request would succeed. But they made right contacts and wrote a solid proposal--the committee voted overwhelmingly to lift the club's status.
Aside from increased financial support, including a traveling budget, the change in the club's status--it will be classed officially on the varsity II level--means the ability to attract better competition. Moving from a club to a varsity team, Hansen says, "enables us to play the best schools in the country." And the squad has not hesitated for a moment in trying to bring the most talented groups in the nation to Blodgett pool.
In the fall, the seven-man team will take on tough eastern and NCAA teams; the spring will entail competition in the AAU. Along the way. Harvard plans to meet six of the eight teams that made it to the NCAA finals last year, including perennial powerhouse and second-ranked UCLA, and tough customers Fordham and Air Force. In the east, the first goal will be to defeat two teams that have drowned the club in the past--Yale and MIT--and ultimately to challenge Brown, the strongest in the east.
Pike, who doubles as aquatic director at the Belmont Hill Club, acknowledges that dreams of a championship are just that. "Brown is still the best team in New England," he says, adding, "We're playing as aggressive a schedule as we can get." The team will use the battles against opponents "to learn as much as we can and apply that when the playoffs come around," Pike says.
If all goes according to plan, Harvard will compete in the eastern NCAA qualifying rounds. Hansen says although the tougher line-up of teams may make the squad's record (10-7 last year) "suffer a little," the club-turned-team can use the opportunity for self-education.
Aside from a tougher schedule--and the daily four-mile runs and two-mile swims the coach will require--varsity status means that the University can start to recruit better players. In the past, Pike explains, it was hard to bring in all-Americans, who knew that because Harvard only had a club, they could never compete on NCAA qualifying squads.
Two all-American freshmen, including one star from Hawaii, will join a solid nucleus of returning players. Only two of the club's top competitors were lost to graduation and, except for goalies that Hansen labels "untested against superior competition," the prospects look bright. Enriquez and left-handed field player Hansen will be joined by star junior Houston Hall and strong sophomores and Fullerton, Calif., residents Phil Atkinson and Rich Guerra.
If everything else is changing, however, team members hope that the new status will not hurt the open atmosphere and friendliness that characterized water polo as a club sport. Although the varsity team will carry only a 16-man squad at home, pike says he will keep everybody who can meet minimum requirements--"good swimming skills and a knowledge of the game." The coach adds that he will also encourage women to try out for the squad and will emphasize the women's program in the spring.
As of this year, Pike contends, water polo will no longer be viewed as a second-rate sport or a conditioning ground for swimmers. Last year, team members "proved to the athletic department that they were very serious about the sport," the coach says. Varsity status--and the ability to schedule tough matches--"puts us on the first step to parity" with the big guns, he explains. "Now, it's up to us."