Men’s water polo (19-6, 9-3 MAWPC) is one day away from defending its conference title.
The team wrapped up the regular season with 19 wins, the program’s most since 1997 when the Colonials went 23-10 under head coach Van Hoffman. Now, the Colonials will travel to the Bronx Friday to defend their title as the Mid Atlantic Water Polo Conference champions.
The team’s 9-3 conference record earned GW the No. 2 seed in the tournament, behind Bucknell, which finished the season with an 11-1 conference record.
Head coach Barry King said he is trying to maintain a balanced mindset heading into the weekend by reminding the Colonials how much work it took last season to earn the conference title while also focusing on improving past mistakes.
“None of these guys have ever defended anything before, so we’re trying to make it as simple as possible and remove the weight of that defense,” King said.
With the exception of McKendree, GW’s first opponent in the quarterfinal round, the Colonials have beaten every other team in the tournament. The Colonials face McKendree Friday, then GW will either play Johns Hopkins or Wagner in the semifinal round.
“We’re looking at a tough semifinal just like we were last year, looking at what will be a tough championship if we get there,” King said. “I think we’re in a good place mentally, more eager to get after it than dreading the actual competition.”
Junior utility player and leading goal-scorer Atakan Destici said the Colonials’ path to victory this weekend rests in their defensive effort.
“I believe that defense is the key in this championship because compared to last year’s conference, I think team’s are really close to each other,” Destici said. “It’s more competitive, so whoever plays the best defense in the tournament I think will be the first team in the conference.”
King added that the key to the team’s success centers around a strong defensive effort, which includes a combination of shot-blocking and efficient goaltending, as well as capitalizing on power play opportunities. That will influence an effective counter-attack and put pressure on the opponent, he said.
“The championship usually comes down to the best goalkeeper, or the team that’s playing the best team defense, or your ability to convert the power play,” he said. “If you’re not converting a power play, it puts a lot of pressure on your six-on-six options and your ability to score natural goals.”
Senior goalkeeper Austin Pyrch owns a 55.8 save percentage this season and has racked up 245 saves on the season.
Acknowledging the team’s defensive shortcomings in games against opponents like Wagner this season – who the Colonials have lost twice to in three meetings – King said if the team starts getting selfish and “out of system,” GW will be the ones chasing the game.
“You do want to be sitting out there within arm’s reach, but you also want to be in a place where you’re taking responsibility for the minute things, for the details,” King said. “And we’re still trying to get better and not just rely on the things we’ve done up until this point in the season.”
Earlier in the season, King said a major issue for the team was the fact that they were playing down to the level of their opponents, something which now he has “gone a long way to addressing.”
“I think in the last three weeks we’ve got a lot more consistent, gotten on the same page, and we’re not necessarily relying on the ‘Atakan and Andrew’ show every time we go out there and we can overcome them having a slow start or a bad day,” King said.
As the two leading goal-scorers on the team, Destici and junior center Andrew Mavis have combined for 142 out of the team’s 398 total goals this season. Destici said the team is also set on making a repeat appearance at the NCAA Tournament.
Sophomore utility player Andras Levai compared the atmosphere of the playoffs to the regular season and said there is a “totally different mindset” when approaching this season’s postseason play.
“We want it even more now, and obviously the incoming freshmen should have the same mindset, too,” he said.
The Colonials kick off playoff competition 6 p.m. Friday against McKendree at Fordham’s Col. Francis B. Messmore Aquatic Center in the Bronx.