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Men's Water Polo Struggles Through Rollercoaster Year

By Jamal K. Greene, Crimson Staff Writer

Wait 'til next year.

Once again that bitter phrase will have to be the motto of the Harvard men's water polo team (12-19, 5-6 CWPA). After a frustrating, injury-plagued 1997 campaign, the Crimson entered the 1998 season expecting to make a splash during the regular season and at the East Coast Athletic Conference Tournament.

With a new coach and a fresh perspective in first-year skipper Jim Floerchinger, and the re-entrenchment of a healthy Mike Zimmerman at the 2-meter spot, a return to the form that brought the team a 15-8 season and earned Zimmerman All-America accolades in 1996 seemed well within reach.

No one counted on a season-ending injury to freshman goalie Gresham Bayne before the opener, forcing sophomore driver Josh Bliesath into net. Although Bliesath improved dramatically as the season progressed, it took an entire year for Harvard to recover from its early-season woes.

The Crimson dropped six of its first seven contests and remained plagued by inconsistency for the entire regular season. Harvard managed to close the year on an up note, finishing fifth at the Northern Division Tournament despite being seeded eighth, but success for this team came too late and not often enough.

A 2-3 road trip to California late in the season seemed to sum up the Crimson's 1998 campaign. Harvard played superbly in a win over Chapman, and turned in a serviceable overall effort in a one-point win over LaVerne, but suffered numerous defensive lapses in losses to Pomona and George Washington.

"It seemed as if we fielded two teams," said Bliesath after the trip. "When we came out ready to play, we won. At other times, it was as if we didn't even show up."

To the Crimson's credit, the "ready to play" team emerged more and more as the season advanced. After recording just one win--over Iona, where the proof is in the people--in the first seven games of the season, the team went on to win three of its next four.

Included in the string of wins was an 11-6 road victory over Fordham, which had beaten Harvard in the second game of the season. It seemed a sure sign of a ship on the cusp of being steered in the right direction.

"We played really well [at Fordham]," said Zimmerman, the team's captain. "It was like a completely different team [from earlier in the season]."

However, the team that sometimes "didn't show up," failed to show up several more times this season. The Crimson's one loss during its initial winning stretch was a 10-9 setback to lowly MIT, a sign of the dismal week to come.

Harvard lost five straight matches from Sept. 27 to Oct. 4, including all four of its contests at the Princeton-hosted North/South Invitational. As if shot in the arm by defeat, however, the Crimson recovered from its New Jersey drive by closing the season a respectable 8-8.

Harvard followed its competitive play in California by trading wins and losses, yet gaining confidence, through the close of the season.

The team's final regular-season match, a 10-6 win over Boston College, avenged a 13-7 season-opening loss to the Eagles, and represented the Crimson's best effort of the regular season.

"The team really was there in a way I haven't seen it before--mentally, physically, everything," said Bliesath after the win. "It was really a beautiful game."

The Crimson carried the momentum from the B.C. win into Northerns. The score of its 13-4 opening-round loss to top-seeded Queens belies the competitiveness of the match, which stood at 5-3 at halftime.

Losing to the Royals eliminated the Crimson for contention for one of the top four spots at the tournament, which carry automatic bids into ECACs. Harvard made the most of the rest of the tournament, however, posting impressive victories over B.C. and Iona to close the season.

Despite its final record, Harvard proved itself capable of brilliance.

"This was the most mature team I've seen in two years, and we were able to put it together for the final two games," said senior driver Chris Tilghman.

Although the Crimson can boast more depth than in previous years, replacing this senior class--Zimmerman, Tilghman, 2-Meter and defensive whiz Tom Chalberg and driver Sid Burke--will be a challenge, to say the least.

Zimmerman, the first Harvard water polo player ever to win All-America honors and the holder of the team's single-season scoring mark (101 goals, 21 assists in 1996), is perhaps the best player in the program's history, and will be sorely missed.

But adversity has become old hat for Harvard water polo. If 1998 carries a lesson for the Crimson, it is how to rebound.

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