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Men's Water Polo Bounces Back From Princeton Loss With Critical Victories

Andrej Basica, then a first-year, prepares to shoot in a 16-12 victory over Wagner on Sept. 4, 2021. Basica and the Crimson needed three wins over the weekend, and they got three wins.
Andrej Basica, then a first-year, prepares to shoot in a 16-12 victory over Wagner on Sept. 4, 2021. Basica and the Crimson needed three wins over the weekend, and they got three wins. By Zadoc I.N. Gee
By Amy Dong, Contributing Writer

Following a disappointing loss to division rival Princeton the previous week, the Harvard men’s water polo team entered last weekend with a grim determination and something to prove.

And prove it did. The Crimson (10-4, 4-1 Ivy League) emerged from the long weekend with a three game winning streak. Harvard swept all three opponents, besting Brown (9-7, 2-3) and Connecticut (1-6) on Saturday on a back-to-back road trip, before returning to Cambridge on Sunday to dismantle MIT (3-10, 1-5 NEWMAC).

“As far as a wake-up call goes, that was really how we took that loss as a team,” said junior center Kaleb Archer on the game against Princeton.

Archer felt the loss was good motivation for the team to focus on improving its game-plan, aiming to avoid repeats of any mistakes the team had made at Princeton –– including losses.

Head coach Ted Minnis attributed Harvard’s ability to bounce back so successfully from its previous loss to the level of seniority and experience present in the current team; many players have won before with the Crimson during its undefeated run in 2019 for the NWPC Championship.

“They understand that each game is a new opportunity to improve,” Minnis said. “I think we came back and had a good week of practice, and worked on correcting things that hindered us in the game. We’re doing a better job of executing.”

Although Harvard’s hard work this week paid dividends, the games were not without their own separate challenges. Last Saturday saw a doubleheader for the Crimson, starting early in the morning in Providence, RI where Harvard battled Brown. This game would be the first time the Crimson has faced Brown this season, but the matchup also carried weight beyond the typical Ivy-versus-Ivy rivalry; last season, Harvard had lost to the Bears 13-15 for third-place in the 2021 NWPC Championships despite posting a perfect record against Brown all season.

The Crimson was able to dominate play, scoring early in the game. The goal from senior center defender Gabe Putnam opened the floodgates for six consecutive goals scored by Harvard in the first quarter. Yet, with three seconds left in the first quarter, Brown’s Matt Simko was able to sneak one into the net to set the score at 9-4 in favor of the Crimson. The Bears’ scoring would catch Harvard by surprise, with Brown managing to out-score a quenched Crimson team in the fourth quarter 4-2.

“I think sometimes the games where you come out with a big lead are the ones that are a little bit mentally more difficult,” Archer explained. “With the closer games, you’re locked in because that’s the competitive nature, and the game’s tight, so obviously you can feel how much every possession matters, and you’re just grinding that out. I think that’s one of the things that really surprised me, is sometimes those games where you’re four or five up, you really need to fight that mental battle to stay locked in.”

Though Harvard’s strong play ensured a secure lead, these lapses in game-time dominance from the team cost it valuable goals, and this concentration is an element that the team is working to improve on.

“That was an example of us waxing and waning, in a sense,” Archer admitted. “I think there were flashes when we were doing the right things, but there were also some times where we’re making some mental lapses that let them back into it. But I think all-in-all, it was a great learning game and a big step for us.”

Despite these few slip-ups, Harvard had a strong showing against its rivals in Providence, ultimately defeating Brown 15 to 10. Junior attacker Owen Hale scored four goals, and senior goalie Noah Hodge put on a solid 12 save performance. The game was an especially big milestone for junior defender Cam Dougherty, who recorded his first ever career hat-trick.

“I’m proud of Cam: his first career hat-trick, and to do it in a rivalry game is a testament to his hard work,” Minnis said.

Dougherty had been a center for the past two years and had come into the season’s training camp as such. Yet, with the addition of many new faces, including first-year utility James Rozolis-Hill (who posted two goals against Brown), the team’s depth chart was starting to crowd. Dougherty then shifted to defender, stepping up to excel in his new position. The hat-trick, among other things, looks to be a promising sign of what Dougherty has to offer in the reconfigured roster.

Then-junior goalie Noah Hodge prepares for a shot in a 16-12 win against Wagner on Sept. 5, 2021. Hodge recorded 12 saves in a win over Brown on Saturday, Oct. 8.
Then-junior goalie Noah Hodge prepares for a shot in a 16-12 win against Wagner on Sept. 5, 2021. Hodge recorded 12 saves in a win over Brown on Saturday, Oct. 8. By Josie W. Chen

Following its victory at Brown, a tired Crimson team continued its Saturday trip with a stop at Connecticut College. Evidently, commuting from a major rivalry game, with all of its emotions and exhaustion, to a game against another conference team is not without its drawbacks.

“Rolling that right in the Conn. College game was very mentally and physically draining,” Archer remarked. “Playing two games, three hours apart, while traveling to-and-from them was a quick, quick turnaround. I think it sort of was an exercise in our mental fortitude, and I think the guys executed super well.”

Fortitude was something Connecticut also struggled with: it was also playing a doubleheader and had lost to MIT on its senior day earlier that morning. Harvard would add to Connecticut’s loss column, seizing a decisive 20-6 victory over the Camels. Both Rozolis-Hill and sophomore attacker Alex James were able to net four goals each, with this marking James’ first four-goal performance of the season.

It was the second time this season that Harvard has been able to score 20 or more goals in a single game. This performance put the team in a strong position as it returned to Cambridge to face off against its final opponents for the weekend.

If the game against Brown had been defined by Harvard’s initial dominance, the game against MIT was less so. Last October, the Crimson had splashed to a slightly chippy 16-10 victory against the Engineers. Though the score had compounded to a heftier 21-11 victory this time around, the flaws from last season’s match-up had not necessarily been erased. Once again, Harvard struggled in the first half, giving up the lead early to MIT and having to fight to turn the tide.

“I still think we gave up too many goals in the MIT game,” said Minnis, while noting MIT’s strong ability to capitalize on the Crimson’s mistakes and score on their powerplay as key factors in what made this game challenging.

Archer also commented on the slower start from Harvard, attributing it to a “feeling-out process” for getting a good grasp of MIT’s current roster and play style.

Harvard would luckily go on to find its offensive footing, netting seven consecutive goals to establish a 9-3 lead. By the fourth quarter, the Crimson would only allow one goal while roping together seven for itself.

“I think our in-practice preparation this week really had us ready for it,” explained Archer, referring to the team’s ability to turn the game around. “We knew exactly what they were gonna go out and do, and they sort of played exactly into it, and we were able to handle it well.”

He also attributed Harvard’s success to the team’s fitness, noting it as a means of outlasting opponents while playing at a high-level.

Another decisive factor for the win, decided Minnis, was the presence of first-year goalie Tanner Furtak in net. Despite this being his first match against MIT, Furtak was able to settle in during the second half to make a total of six saves.

Though only a first-year, Furtak has been able to step in and step up where he is needed most––not only as another goalie between the pipes to share the season workload with starter goalie Noah Hodge, but also as the future of the program. With senior Hodge leaving next year, Furtak will be expected to take over the net.

Luckily, he’s been getting plenty of experience and help.

“[Hodge], our captain, has been like a great mentor for him,” Archer mentioned. “In practice, we’re scrimmaging, and they’re on opposite sides of the pool––it doesn’t feel like there’s a drop off. They’re both working very hard, doing great things.”

Given the opportunity to learn from the one Minnis called “one of the best goalies in the world, and one of the top goalies on the east coast”, will be undoubtedly valuable for Furtak’s development.

In the meantime, the Crimson looks ahead to its next few games this weekend. The tough lineup features Long Beach State (12-6, 1-1 Big West) and Pomona (9-11, 4-1 SCIAC). All four upcoming games will take place at home in Blodgett Pool, with three happening as part of the Harvard Invitational. As part of the series, the Crimson will take on the No. 6 ranked team in the nation (Harvard currently sits at number 13), but the team doesn’t seem to mind.

“We’re really excited about that, and the opportunity to show how externally competitive our conference, the east coast water polo, and our team specifically can be,” Archer said.

With regards to any takeaways or lessons from this weekend, Minnis reiterated the importance of striving for continuous improvement.

“[We] still have a lot of work to do,” Minnis remarked. “I think for us, just keep getting better at every phase of the game. This is a staircase that we’re climbing, and we gotta be at the top every November.”

Also to look forward to this weekend is the Long Beach State game on October 15th which will be the team’s featured Breast Cancer Awareness game.

“Raising awareness in any sense for breast cancer is something that is very near and dear to our team and personally,” Archer said. “I’m excited that that’s the cause that we can champion and raise awareness for while playing our sport.”

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