Predicting the fate of the Harvard men's water polo team has been a dangerous bet in recent years. Will it be any different this season?
In many ways the 1996 season appeared to be an unequivocal starting point for a struggling program. The 15-8 record merely grazed the surface as the Crimson repeatedly demonstrated strong performances against some of the top water polo teams in the nation. Whether it was the two early-season victories against Washington & Lee and Bucknell or the almost win against No. 12 Navy, Harvard was slowly gaining confidence and respect among its competitors.
But then there was the other side.
It was this side which explained the reasons for the multiple last-quarter, last-second losses which occurred throughout the season. In the end it was the unmistakable youth and lack of sheer numbers which created an ominous question mark over the rebuilding Crimson squad.
"We were tired by the end of the game and we made some mistakes," said Coach Don Benson '88. "We have guys that want to win and who have come from programs that have been winning programs. They expect to win every time they are in the pool and games like we lost last year, it was just a huge disappointment."
Carrying at most only 13 players, including sophomore Tom Chalberg, who split time between water polo and singing with the Krokodiloes, Harvard was unable to outlast the national powerhouses that typically boast 30 or more players on their rosters.
But this year is already a different story. After losing only two players to graduation and bolstered by six new freshmen-most of whom tower over six feet giving Harvard some needed size-the Crimson's roster saw a 38-percent increase.
"[Last year] guys were just too tired and they were getting ejected," said senior goaltender Ed Chen. "There weren't really any new guys to put in to fill in the gaps. This year we can just toss guys in right and left."
And there is no question that this lack of depth contributed to the numerous last-quarter defeats which plagued Harvard's season.
"Last year it was seven guys going seven minutes for four quarters and it's just too difficult," said senior Andy Davis. "When you know that a guy can come off the bench and you won't lose a step, it just makes you push it even harder on the counter-attack."
It is that offensive counter-attack which will surely be the Crimson's strength. Led by Harvard's first ever water polo All-American, junior 2-meter man Mike Zimmerman, the Crimson should have no difficulty finding the back of the net.
Last year Zimmerman alone tallied a school record 101 goals while Davis and fellow senior utility man Marty Edlund added their own offensive punch. In addition, 13 of the players convened in southern California this summer for a week of intensive training. Evidenced early on during preseason, the overall fitness level has also increased significantly from last year.
"I think that we will put a lot of goals on the board," Benson said. "Our strength is that we are going to be really strong at 2-meter and also our quickness will be up. I am a little worried about our counter-attack in that we have the problem where we don't finish our fast break very well."
The other side of the pool has also been a source of strength in recent seasons with Chen presenting a strong, solid figure in net. But both Chen and backup goaltender Joe Villa spent last spring abroad, raising questions as to their level of preparedness.
"I am a little concerned about our goaltenders," Benson said. "Both are experienced and I expect them to be ready to go when the season starts, but thus far they look as if they spent the spring abroad."
Regardless, the first big challenge for Chen and the rest of the Crimson squad will come in a mere week and half against Eastern foe, Queens. Although the matchup comes early on in the season, a victory against the New York squad could spell serious dividends come seeding time for the Eastern Qualifying Championships in October.
Last year mid-season losses to both Queens and Massachusetts-both Eastern opponents-dropped Harvard into the bottom half of the draw. Thus instead of facing a weaker first-round opponent such as MIT or Boston College, Harvard was pitted against an always strong Brown team. As a result, for two years straight, the Bears have kept the Crimson out of the Eastern championship.
A year ago, however, no one had expected Harvard to even reach that stage, but this season expectations are much higher.
"I don't think that if you had asked at the start of last season how we would have done, we wouldn't have predicted that we would have been battling for Easterns down to the final seconds," Benson said. "This year we expect to go and do well there. If we don't make it then it would be a tremendous defeat for us."
With this renewed confidence and excitement in the Harvard water polo program, an early season matchup against a quality opponent such as Queens is just what the players want.
"I think that we have a very positive outlook on this season," Zimmerman said. "I think that [Queens] will come out of shape and since they have a new coach, they won't have much of a structure."
With a jumble of new and old faces, the Crimson will embark on a new season once again. How different this year will be remains the final question to be answered.
It all starts on September 12 against UMass.
MEEN'S WATER POLO
Coach: Don Benson '88
Captain: Not available
Key Returees: Seniors Ed Chen, Andy Davis and Marty Edlund, junior Mike Zimmerman
Key Losses: Da Arbelaez, Jonathan Gill