In the final minutes of the men’s water polo team’s game against No. 17 Johns Hopkins on Friday, a former player ‒ at the game as a fan ‒ got into an argument with a referee. The referee flashed his red card, issuing it to the man in street clothes and generating considerable mirth from the crowd and considerable ire from the former player.
Emotions were high because the Colonials were just barely letting a game that had been drenched with upset-worthy excitement for more than three quarters slip away.
They were high because, until the Blue Jays pulled away at the end, it looked like a classic underdog story being written: GW played an entire lineup of freshmen and sophomores in the 11‒8 loss to the ranked opponent.
“I mean, you see that game, it’s so close, and we’re a bunch of freshmen and sophomores,” rookie Brett Else said. “That game’s ours next year. It could even be ours the end of this year. There’s no telling what’s to come.”
Through 11 games, freshmen and sophomores account for 98 of the team’s 104 goals. That is, in part, because freshmen and sophomores make up 14 of the team’s 19 active players on the roster, but underclassmen are also the team’s leading scorers.
Freshman James McLean and sophomore Pierce Deamer have been the top producers. Both notched hat tricks on Friday against the Blue Jays and occupy the top two positions on the team in goals scored by a wide margin.
Goaltending, too, has been strong from the rookie class. Entering the weekend, senior Connor Dillon had made 44 of the 88 saves by GW keepers. But freshman Matt Taylor held the top save percentage at 0.738 before Friday and had earned a Collegiate Water Polo Association Southern Division Defensive Player of the Week award earlier in the month. Taylor and classmate Austin Pyrch, who also plays in the pool, split time in the net over the weekend. Pyrch made 19 saves and allowed 18 goals during the Johns Hopkins game and in the first half of GW’s 14-9 loss to No. 11 Princeton to close the weekend on Sunday, while Taylor made 18 saves and allowed 21 goals in the second half of the Princeton game and in a 14-12 overtime loss to No. 15 Bucknell the day before.
McLean completed his hat trick with an impressive score with coverage by Blue Jay defenders closing in on him from both sides. He received a pass, stationed in front of the Johns Hopkins goal but with his back to it, and spun to throw a strike through the arms of his defenders into the net to put the Colonials up 8‒7 in one of the many momentum swings of the game.
McLean was also a big physical presence defensively in the game for the Colonials.
“James is a great presence for us and Zach Kerwin and Brett Else are playing huge minutes for us,” head coach Adam Foley said. “Everyone is making mistakes, but it’s going to happen and we’re relying on huge chunks of the game from them, and I really feel happy with how they’re responding to that.”
Those youthful mistakes have cost the team a lot of games. They have a 2-9 record after facing three straight ranked opponents this weekend at home. But they played each of those teams hard and close. Wins and losses are not the focus of this year, though McLean said it’s important not to stray too far from a results-oriented approach.
“You need to think about that,” McLean said. “You can’t be just like, ‘Oh, it’s just a game.’ It was a big game. We could have won it. But you just need to take it, think about what you’ve done, what you could have done better and concentrate on those things.”
One area of focus is on defense, where the team is working on their in-pool chemistry when zoning up on opponents and preventing attackers from getting separation when in man coverage. Especially without defensive anchor Bogdan Petkovic, who is redshirting, the zippy Blue Jays were sometimes able to burst away from the Colonials to find better looks at the goal.
Out-of-pool chemistry is not a problem.
“We feel like we’ve known each other for ages. It’s only been a month,” McLean said. “We’re looking forward to the next four years together. It’s going to be great. The talent in this freshman class is incredible.”
“We like to hang out. There are definitely jokes,” Else said.
“A couple of sneaky jokes,” McLean added.
McLean is from New Zealand, and Else said that the group has started watching rugby “for the Kiwi,” though McLean said they still watch too many NFL games because they all root for different teams. Else is a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, who survived a late comeback attempt by the New York Jets for their first win of the NFL season Sunday.
“We’re working some kinks out,” he said. “Just like our team!”
That’s still a pretty nice thing to say about the Eagles, all things considered.