Covering the Land of Lincoln

Top Five Stories for 2021: No 5—Water Polo is Back!

Editor’s note: The end is near! 2021 is almost in the books, so TWp looks back on the five biggest storylines of the year. Today we focus on the joy of playing; After a difficult start due to COVID-19 bans and outbreaks, the NCAA men played a shortened season while the NCAA women made most of the campaign. In the summer things really got going with the complete – albeit spectatorless – Olympic Games in Tokyo and then a complete NCAA men’s season with the usual ups and downs (and for the 24th year in a row a Pac-12 team was created as national champions). Tomorrow we will see how the Olympics have left many polo watchers both satisfied and frustrated.

Since the game has been played for almost a year without major COVID interruptions, we should all be grateful (right ?!). And that’s us – especially after one hell of a NCAA final that saw the Cal Golden Bears return TWICE to kill the USC Trojans for a 15th national record championship.

[Cal’s Men’s Water Polo Team Defeats USC For 15th NCAA Title]

In case anyone wants to relive the misery of 2020, read Steven Munatones Articles from this period on how much impact COVID-19 had on California high school and club play:

[Munatones on Water Polo in California: Lockdown is Absolutely Crushing] Cal played “beautiful water polo” when he defeated USC in the 2021 NCAA Finals. Courtesy photo: Cal Athletics

Most importantly, there were no major outages due to the virus. Tony Kamaran, a referee who had traveled to both coasts to compete, recently mentioned that some officials had been affected by the coronavirus, but the effects were imperceptible to most observers – an honor for Amber Drury, NCAA water polo coordinator for men and women of officials and their staff.

[On The Record with Tony Karaman: “It Was Tough But Water Polo Survived”]

The 2021 national championship had its COVID-19 moment as Princeton head coach Dustin Litvak and some of its players tested positive for the virus shortly before the Tigers’ quarter-final game against UCLA. According to Kamaran, her trainer’s absence is a star newbie Vladan Mitrovic had an impact on the Bruins’ unilateral victory.

Would that score be different from what it was? With all due respect Adam Wright [UCLA coach] and his team, but also to Derek Ellingson [Princeton assistant coach] whoever intervened would be different in my opinion. I think the game would be different from the start. Dusty would be in the lead, and they would have played with a full roster.

All should be grateful, however, that this men’s season was spared the uncertainty that dominated the early months of the NCAA basketball season for men and women. And last March’s abbreviated affair went through for the 2020 campaign – which resulted in UCLA defeating arch-rivals USC for the unofficial MPSF title.

But coupled with the fact that the women had a (relatively) full season of play last spring, with USC claiming the program’s seventh NCAA title thanks to an overwhelming victory over UCLA and – COVID-willing – preparing for a typical season the next American polo fans can breathe a sigh of relief that their sport is enduring.

Even the fanless Tokyo games proved convincing, with pre-tournament favorites, Serbia for the men’s gold and the US for the women, both stumbling before roaring to repeat Olympic glory. Dejan Savics Team, the oldest in this year’s men’s class, beat Greece at 13:10 to win gold in a row – and the country’s fourth consecutive Olympic medal (including bronze in 2008 and 2012). For his efforts, Savic was named FINA Trainer of the Year 2021, and Filip Filipovic was named FINA Player of the Year 2021.

[Steffens and Filipovic receive FINA Awards for 2021] US goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson leads the parade of Americans celebrating Olympic gold for the third year in a row. Courtesy photo: FINA

Adam Krikorians Team joined the Hungarian men in 2000, 2004 and 2008 when the Americans won gold for the third year in a row and dominated Spain 14-5. The US captain was incomparable Maggie Steffenswho also achieved the top FINA awards as Water Polo Player of the Year 2021 – her third time in the 10-year history of the award. Krikorian has been named FINA’s best coach in the sport.

[Unsparing USA women engulf Spain to cap rare Olympic water polo threepeat]

There were victims of the COVID program. Sonoma State and George Washington cut their women’s teams, while La Salle ended its men’s program. Last year Urbana University, a Division II school in Urbana, Illinois, didn’t just shut down its water polo program for women; the whole school was closed.

[La Salle Men’s Water Polo Cancellation a “Shock” for Hyham]

But this is a half-full glass view; Women’s polo will start before we know. The Arizona State Invitational is scheduled for January 21-23; Several top teams likely to make it into the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s top 25 poll – University of California Irvine, Fresno State, Michigan, and Cal – will kick off the water at ASU’s Mona Plummer Aquatic Center, which ideally would be a glorious women’s campaign in 2022.

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