Despite coming off a shortened season and a rocky start, men’s water polo rallied together throughout the season to make a playoff run and provide hope for next year.
The Colonials finished with a record just below .500 at 12-14, but with a stronger conference record of 7-5. The team finished third in their conference tournament, narrowly missing regionals and falling just short of a fifth trip to the conference title in six years.
While the team did not get off to a hot start, falling to 1-6 in their first seven games, head coach Barry King said the team rallied and played “much better” water polo at the end of the year than at the start.
“In terms of our goal of being better and making each other better, I think we did that in the face of some fairly trying circumstances over the last couple years,” King said. “And quite frankly, I didn’t really know what to expect out of this group.”
King said the team struggled making the transition to find consistent leadership among themselves after losing several key veteran players and multi-year all-conference honorees, including former utility player Atakan Destici and center Andrew Mavis, to graduation in 2019.
Additionally, the team played 26 matches instead of its usual 30 to 32 this past season. But the previous season was heavily shortened, with only five matches in total due to pandemic-related cancellations.
“We lost a year of fitness too,” King said. “Our inability to get into the weight room on a consistent basis, you know, our practice times were limited and disjointed and all that kind of stuff for an entire year. So we showed up, probably as out of shape and less fit than we ever have been.”
King said “the good news” was that the team knew they would have to approach their fitness with a greater sense of urgency this year and accepted the challenge.
Senior utility player Nick Schroeder said the team made an active effort to stay as close to each other socially as they could and seized any opportunity they had to practice and keep playing before the season began.
“By the end of the year, besides a couple people catching COVID, COVID did not have all that big of an impact on us,” Schroeder said. “We were able to fight through it.”
After dropping six straight games following their win over Iona to start the season, the team faced a season defining moment in a rematch with Brown Sept. 18 after losing to the Bears just a week prior. King said the 12-11 overtime win proved to be a major turning point for the team.
“We could have easily just folded our tents and just been a really bad water polo team from that point on,” King said. “And we came off getting smoked by Harvard, but turned it around and beat a team that we had lost to the week before.”
This win kicked off the start of a four game win streak and a 5-1 run including the following two games. The team was re-energized and set for the conference tournament. While only placing third, two players earned all-conference accolades – Sophomore goalkeeper Luca Castorina and center Viktor Jovanovic.
Both players had record seasons, as Castorina nearly set a new single-season saves record with 349 saves while Jovanovic set the school’s single-season drawn exclusions record at 79. King said Castorina is “as good as it gets” and the duo were the “story of the year.”
“Victor Jovanovic improved so much,” King said. “His trajectory is basically the trajectory of the team in terms of our improvement and everything. He was struggling to find a place and trying to fit into the system and became a dominant center in the league.”
The team rode their stars to a turnaround second half of the season and a third place finish at the MAWPC Championship. In the playoffs, the Colonials took down John Hopkins 12-6 in a dominant performance before falling to Navy in the semifinal 11-7. But GW went on to defeat Wagner in the third place game, winning 11-9 after scoring two goals to go ahead in the last five minutes.
The third place finish was not the result the team was hoping for, but the season has set up the team for a positive outlook as they look forward to the next one. Schroeder ended up setting career highs in goals and points with 43 and 63 respectively across 26 total games, placing him second on the squad in both statistics.
“It’s disappointing because we felt like we could win,” Schroeder said. “But seeing the growth of where we started, where we got to was really nice.”
Despite being a senior, Schroeder will return next year as he looks to earn a master’s degree at GW and look to win one last time after not being able to fully compete in his junior year. Schroeder said the team will have to adopt yet another new identity as the team’s leader in goals and co-leader in assists, graduate student utility player Andras Levai, will move on next year.
“But we definitely have a really solid core,” Schroeder said. “We have the best goalie in the conference. We have one of the better centers, if not the best center in the conference next year.”