Harvard men's water polo team finished off their regular season last weekend with a three game stint. It was only fitting to do it at the place the team has favored most: home, sweet home, at Blodgett Pool in Cambridge.
The Crimson (19-8, 8-2 Northeast Water Polo Conference) won two of its three games last weekend, bringing its regular season record at Blodgett to 10-3. The wins came against conference rivals St. Francis Brooklyn (19-9, 6-4 NWPC) and Iona (10-17, 4-8 NWPC), the former of which had cut Harvard's postseason short last year with a 11-10 upset in the conference semifinals.
Last Saturday, in a decisive 15-10 victory, Harvard did not let the Terriers secure a repeat.
Junior attacker Owen Hale and center Kaleb Archer both scored hat-tricks against St. Francis. First-year utility James Rozolis-Hill continued to raise Harvard water polo’s single season goal record, tallying another four goals onto the board, while senior goaltender Noah Hodge recorded ten more saves, adding to his tally as the program’s all-time saves leader.
Harvard would continue their winning streak at Iona with a powerful 15-9 victory before losing their last game to conference rival Princeton 10-7.
“It would have been nice to get a win against Princeton,” said head coach Ted Minnis of the game. “They’re a very talented team, they’re very well-coached. It's always fun to play against them and they’ve pushed us over the years to be the best that we can be and hopefully we’ve done that for them too.”
The Crimson played against Princeton earlier this season in October, ending in a tight 6-9 loss to the Tigers, with both matches featuring an uncharacteristically low goal count for Harvard. As of now, Princeton currently holds an undefeated regular season record in the Northeast Water Polo Conference, their first undefeated season since their 2015 sweep in the now defunct Southern Division Conference.
Yet, despite the unsatisfactory outcome, some prettier stats also made a favorable appearance for the Crimson. Senior goaltender Noah Hodge made a season-high of 15 saves, and Rozolis-Hill was as present as ever, tallying a casual hat-trick against the Tigers to do his part in keeping Harvard in the game.
The loss leaves the fruitful regular season to an unfortunate ending note, but the team remains optimistic.
“We played a pretty tough schedule, and to come out 19-8––I’m pretty proud of that,” Minnis reflected. “I talked about at the beginning of the season ‘we’re at the bottom of the staircase,’ and we’ve done a good job of climbing that staircase and getting to the top, and giving ourselves a chance to compete here in a week for hopefully winning a championship or at least competing for a championship.”
The tough schedule was reiterated by captain Noah Hodge, though this tough lineup was not necessarily reflected in the team’s statistics. For those doing the math, a 10-3 home record gives the Crimson a 6-2 away record, and a 3-3 neutral record––quite a feat considering the journey and teams faced.
“I think that definitely played to our benefit, especially towards the end of the season,” said Hodge, referring to the difficult schedule. “Playing a lot of top ten teams in the country really prepares us well for conference play … I think we got a lot of really good experience under our belt throughout our regular season.”
Many of these top ten teams have been courtesy of Harvard’s California trips, as the team spent weekends against water polo powerhouses such as Stanford (20-4), UCLA (21-2), Long Beach State (19-8), and Pomona-Pitzer (16-14). These trips have been big, not just on a player level, but also a personal one.
“California trips are always really special for us, especially as water polo is such a California-dominated sport,” Hodge explained. “Almost all of the team comes from California, and so whenever we’re able to head out there it’s always like a giant family reunion – all our families come up regardless of what part of California they’re from.”
Of all the players listed on the current 2022 roster, only four players are not from California. It makes for, as Hodge describes, some extremely exciting get-togethers for all involved, and a fantastic motivator out of the pool to boot.
“Being 3000 miles away from home isn’t the easiest, and being able to go out there, play outdoors, get a little tan, enjoy the sunshine and having our families there at the games is always a huge highlight for everyone,” Hodge laughed. “I’d definitely highlight that one as one of the best parts of the season so far.”
Of course, all of the experience doesn’t hurt the performance in the pool either. Coach Minnis commented on the improvement of the defensive play from Harvard, while cultivating a more thoughtful offense on the other side of the pool.
“Defense is what wins championships. You have to be able to get stops,” Minnis explained. “I thought we’ve done a better job of being more patient in our attacks and not forcing things, and really taking the best opportunities that we can get.”
Neither of these directions would be made possible without the work of their goaltenders. The current tandem is comprised of freshman Tanner Furtak, and senior Noah Hodge. Though Hodge holds the starting role, Furtak is working to make a name for himself – his start with Iona on Saturday extends his winning streak, as Furtak remains undefeated as a collegiate goaltender.
“[Furtak] came in at the right time, with me being almost done,” Hodge grinned. “I think [Furtak] is a fantastic goalie … he’s such an avid learner and he always asks questions – asking me, asking our coaches questions about how to improve. And he’s coming in and basically inheriting the goalie spot, which is such a huge part of our team, and our defense relies so heavily on it. I’m super excited to see him take over the reins and lead this team. He’s also just like one of the funniest guys on the team, he’s such a goofball and just brings such a good energy to every practice, every time that we hang out as a team. Super proud of him, and super excited to see how he continues to flourish.”
“[Furtak] has improved so much as the year’s gone on,” Minnis agreed. “He’s been awesome, but he’s got that opportunity to work and study under such a great goalie as [Hodge]. Next year is gonna be his opportunity to try to continue the great goalie play we’ve had here over the last seven or eight years.”
Captain and now senior, Hodge has been with the program since 2018, and has collected his fair share of accolades, including All-American honors and his bid as the current program all-time saves leader.
“[Hodge] – he’s, in my opinion, one of the top goalies in the country,” Minnis said. “He does a very good job – he allows us to do a lot of things defensively because of him in the goal.”
Though Hodge was not as interested in focusing the attention on himself, the team was plenty ready to honor him. Saturday’s matches doubled as a senior day, aiming to honor the collegiate careers of the five current seniors (three of which are super seniors) on the roster, which of course, included Hodge himself.
“I always love senior day, and it’s weird being on the other side of it and being the one being honored now,” Hodge admitted. “It feels a little surreal, and maybe a little bit premature, because we have so much of the [post-season] left. I speak for the rest of the super senior class, but we came back because we knew that we had the chance to do something special, and now it’s time for us to put it into motion and make it happen.”
“The class is gonna always be special to me as they leave the program. They’ve brought so much in and out of the pool to our program, and they’re gonna be missed,” Minnis said. “I don’t want to think too much about it, because it’s gonna be sad that they’re gone. I kinda wanna enjoy this last week and a half with them, and hopefully a little longer.”
Hodge and the rest of the senior class were also present during Harvard water polo’s miraculous, undefeated 2019 regular season run, which culminated in a NWPC Championship. They’re among the few to have had the chance to experience the playoff finals, a valuable asset to the team both last season during the group’s transition back from Covid-19 growing pains, and this current year as the Crimson begins to make its own run for playoff victory.
As for this coming postseason, there’s a lot to look forward to – from a potential second chance against St. Francis in the semifinals to a possible matchup against Princeton in the finals, if one dares to look so far ahead. The Tigers are the No. 1 seed and current favorites to repeat as NWPC Champions – and, historically, the last year that Princeton went undefeated in conference play, it led to a decisive championship victory as well.
Harvard will be looking to face a formidable opponent in the potential finals, one whom the team had failed to best in the 2022 regular season. Yet, as anyone who’s been in the postseason before knows, nothing is guaranteed.
“My freshman year heading into playoffs, we were going in as the No. 1 seed, we beat Princeton twice already during the regular season, and we went in and lost to Princeton in the finals pretty handily,” Hodge recounted. “It’s a tough spot to be in, and I would argue that Princeton is kind of in the same boat as we were that freshman year. They handled everyone during the regular season, but none of that matters when it comes to postseason.”
As for Coach Minnis, there is one obstacle that must be dismantled before Princeton first – the semifinals against St. Francis. As the team that had cut short Harvard’s own postseason last year during a nail-biting upset, the Crimson is looking for vengeance. Above all, this is an opportunity to right some of last season’s wrongs. These factors together make the semifinals, as Minnis puts it, “the hardest game to win.”
“If you don’t win it, you don’t get to play for a championship,” Minnis explained. “Things happen in the championship game, but you gotta get to that game.”
Interestingly enough, the team seems less worried about the closest playoff matchup they have – a match against Connecticut College occurring next week, and their stepping stone to a potential semifinals match.
“[Connecticut] College came into our conference last year - they’re still a new program, they’re young, they’re upcoming, which is great because they're growing the sport,” Hodge said. “Personally, I don’t think we’re too worried about that matchup, I think it’s a great opportunity both for them and for some of our younger guys and guys who don’t get to see as much playing time to get in and really get that experience under their belt. It’ll be a great start, but really our sights are set on our semifinals first.”
Of course, that isn’t to say that Connecticut will be a pushover, and especially not in their coaching - their head coach is, in fact, a great friend of Coach Minnis himself. However, the team, and their captain, is ready for the challenge.
“We’re ready to go out with a bang, y’know?” Hodge grinned. “We didn’t take a semester off to come back and lose twice in a row, and we’re all really fired up.”
Harvard will play Connecticut College next Friday at 3:00pm at Brown University. The next time Crimson steps into game-day, it will be treading playoff waters.