Ranked water polo team sputters out of the gate

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – GW’s men’s water polo team entered their first tournament of the season with their highest ranking in more than a decade. And with a match-up against 12th ranked St. Francis, the team had a chance to prove they belonged with the nation’s elite.

But as in years past, the 18th-ranked Colonials came up short and split four games at the 2008 Navy Open, including an 11-6 loss to St. Francis Saturday. GW also lost 11-10 Sunday to Mercyhurst, a team they beat by 10 in their last meeting.

The weekend was somewhat salvaged by a 12-7 win against Concordia and a 7-5 win against MIT Saturday and Sunday, respectively, but the losses stung. GW players and coaches said their experienced team should be past the point of losing to middling teams, and Sunday’s loss was a wakeup call.

“This is a weekend where we are learning exactly where we are,” head coach Scott Reed said Sunday. “And if we make the improvements that we need to make then we have a shot at beating anybody in our conference.”

Players said the losses were inconsequential to the team’s ultimate goal of winning the Eastern Championships, but Reed disagreed.

“I was extremely disappointed. Even though we split the games, we didn’t play at the level that we’re capable of playing,” Reed said. “With Mercyhurst, they took the team for granted and didn’t respect them the way they should have. By the time we started playing some hard water polo, it was too late. And if you want to be the top level team, you can’t do things like that.That’s hopefully what they learned today.”

The highly anticipated match-up between Saint Francis, the second place team in the 2008 Eastern Championships, and the Colonials, who took third, highlighted GW’s weaknesses. The Colonials, who Reed said “played fantastic for the first game of the season,” fell apart in the second half after coming within a goal of the Terriers.

“If they were far superior to us they would have trampled us from the beginning, which wasn’t the case,” starting senior Sergei Shev said Sunday. “For the first three quarters it was anybody’s game, and it was just at the end we fell.”

But there were moments when the Colonials’ potential shone through the cloud of pedestrian play. They played what Reed referred to as an “absolutely perfect game” against Concordia and freshmen goalies Alex Sotolongo and Craig Merlin held their own against experienced shooters. After longtime goalie Chris Whittam graduated, Sotolongo and, to a lesser extent Merlin, will be relied on early to protect GW’s goal.

Freshman Cray Rogers also scored his first collegiate goal against Concordia.

The Colonials have a week to prepare for the Princeton Invitational and its four games, which take place Saturday and Sunday. When they resume practice Tuesday, defense will be the focus, Reed said.

“We’ve got to really focus on our defense quite a bit, and our team play on offense,” Reed said. “We need to get everyone involved on each possession, not just one or two people. We just need to understand everyone has to be involved to make it work.”

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