Men’s water polo is one game away from becoming the winningest team in program history.
The Colonials will take on No. 2 UCLA Thursday at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center to battle for a spot in the semifinal round of the NCAA Championship tournament. With their thrilling 14–13 overtime victory over Princeton in the first round of the NCAA Championship tournament Saturday, the Colonials (23–6) not only claimed their best record of all time, but also delivered the program’s first-ever NCAA win.
As back-to-back Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference champions with an NCAA win to their names, this year’s squad has already surpassed the accomplishments from their historic run last season.
Following the team’s first NCAA appearance last season, head coach Barry King said he hoped national competition would establish GW as a reputable opponent in the pool for years to come, a goal he now said the team “took a gigantic step” toward achieving this season.
“That’s always going to be a moving target but this certainly is the path that we wanted to be on,” King said. “We want to be in a place where we have to accept the responsibility of everybody taking their best shot at us.”
In just two seasons under King, the program has gone from one that had not pieced together more than two consecutive winning seasons in a row to a program consistently competing for championships. A year before King started, the team competed for the first time in the MAWPC Championship finals.
“I don’t think you can underestimate the value of what it does for us,” King said. “When you win the first time, a lot of times it’s perceived as, ‘aw, that’s nice.’ When you win the second time, it’s, ‘hey, what’s going on there.’ It generates a lot more interest in what’s going on.”
Senior utility player Jack Kerwin said the improvement and success of the team over the course of his GW career has been a “storybook ending” for his time as a Colonial.
“Just to be stapled as the best all-time GW men’s water polo team is something that we’ve all been working for and especially with the senior class,” Kerwin said. “Our freshman year we started out 8–22 and we’ve just gotten better and better.”
Kerwin said the team’s chemistry and willingness to embrace a winning culture over time has led to major improvements in team performance because everyone in the pool is playing for each other rather than as individuals.
As one of the final six teams in the NCAA Championship tournament, the Colonials now turn their attention to their next opponent, 11-time NCAA champion No. 2 UCLA (22–4).
King said the emphasis in practice has predominantly been placed on defense and pacing in the pool, but the team is more excited than anything about getting to play one of the best programs in the nation.
“This is everything that they have worked for and desired,” King said. “They’re going to go out there and give it their best.”
Sophomore utility player Andras Levai said it is “crazy” to be on a top-six team in the nation and the level of competition the Colonials will see going forward in the tournament is equivalent to “professional water polo.”
“It’s very much a Rocky Balboa mentality of just, ‘go up and put up your best fight,’” Kerwin said.
King said the team’s seniors – Kerwin, utility player Zach Slaughter and goalkeeper Austin Pyrch – played crucial leadership roles on the team both in and out of the pool this season.
“When people are looking and say, ‘these guys are having their best year as seniors,’ that lends a lot of credence to what we as a staff are asking them to do,” King said. “I can’t really underestimate the value of the effort that they’ve given us this year.”
With increased team success also comes more traction in terms of recruitment and improved facilities, areas both players and King are turning to as the program continues to progress.
Kerwin said the program would benefit greatly and be taken “to the next level” if the Smith Center housed a deeper pool, an obstacle which he said is the team’s “biggest hindrance.”
“It’s hard to compete with teams that are all-deep all year when we’re only using the deep end of our pool,” he said. “But we have the proper coaching staff, we’re getting the right guys so everything is in place.”
Levai said as the program continues to “get better and better,” the team’s goals will become loftier, like reaching the NCAA Final Four.
“We’re a team that’s made the final six of the tournament so hopefully we’re going to be able to get more recruits, more quality players,” Levai said. “There’s a bright future for GW water polo.”
With just one guaranteed game left, the Colonials have already set the stage for next year with their postseason performance.
“They are truly interested in everybody being a part of it and having a place to contribute and having that kind of cohesiveness doesn’t happen very often,” King said. “When it does it usually results in opportunities like playing in the NCAA Championships.”
The Colonials return to action Thursday when they face No. 2 UCLA at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center. Swim off is scheduled for 5:45 p.m.