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The Harvard and Brown men's water polo teams face off tonight in the Northern Division Championships at Blodgett Pool. For freshman phenom Mike Zimmerman, there is more at stake than just a berth in the Eastern Division Championships.
Not only do Zimmerman and the fourth-seeded Crimson (11-10) face the one team that has dominated them in past years, tonight's matchup pits the freshman against his best friend and formal high school teammate, Kevin O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan--recruited by Brown last year--is a starting driver for the Bears, who enter the tournament as the fifth seed.
Zimmerman, a native of St. Louis, was heavily recruited out of St. Louis University High School last year. Expecting marginal playing time at the beginning of the season, Zimmerman has moved into a starting role, splitting time at the two-meter position with senior Julian Alexander.
"I knew I would contribute and play a lot, but to actually start and play an important role is really satisfying," Zimmerman says.
A Zimmerman in the spotlight is nothing new for Harvard water polo. Mike's brother, Jeff Zimmerman '94, was a three-time most valuable player for the Crimson, setting an example for the younger Zimmerman to follow.
So far, Mike is doing more than pulling his weight.
"He's had a dynamic impact in many facets of the game," coach Don Benson says. "Given the position he's in, he's shown quite a lot of leadership."
And a lot of scoring ability to boot.
Zimmerman has put the ball in the goal 57 times in the 18 games he has played this season, second on the team behind Alexander (62 goals). In his last five games, Zimmerman has scored 15 times.
Until the younger Zimmerman's emergence on the scene, Harvard had not defeated Brown for four years. In September, Zimmerman helped to end that dismal streak as Harvard defeated Brown in the first matchup of the season between the Ancient Eight rivals.
Coming into tonight's game with a 1-1 record against the Bears this fall, Zimmerman and the rest of the team are confident that they can advance to next weekend's Eastern Championships and prevent the Bears from reaching the tournament for the first time in recent years.
The intensity of tonight's game does not phase the young two-meter. After coming off a more than-impressive high school career, Zimmerman is accustomed to playing in and winning pressure-filled games.
"I honestly think we're the better team," Zimmerman says.
Zimmerman's fascination with water polo began almost six years ago, when the impressionable junior high school student fell in love with the sport, following in his older brother's footsteps.
Since then, Zimmerman has excelled at every level of the game, leading his high school team to four undefeated seasons and three state championships. He started on the U.S. National Youth Team for two years, was an All-American in the National Junior Olympics in 1994 and was an alternate at the U.S. Olympic Festival last year.
He has already carried over his standard of success to the collegiate level.
Zimmerman is enthusiastic about tonight's game, especially considering the competition. Not only is Brown a great team, but also Zimmerman is sure to face off against former teammate and friend O'Sullivan over the course of the match.
That leaves only one lingering question about this evening's event: Is Zimmerman better than his best friend?
The answer of course is a simple one.
Said Zimmerman with a smile, "Yes, I am."
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