Water Polo Beats Occidental as the Team Preps for the Playoffs

Just before the Pomona-Pitzer women’s water polo team handed Occidental College its first SCIAC loss Saturday afternoon, Head Coach Alex Rodriguez gave the team his most inspirational pre-game speech yet.

“When it comes down to it, this is a game of water polo,” he said. “And in water polo, we’re the best.”

That confident mindset was just what the Sagehens needed to defeat the Tigers despite Oxy’s home pool advantage. Occidental’s pool is unique in that it is abnormally narrow, has a four-and-a-half foot deep shallow end and a goal a foot higher than regulation, and sets up its goals on the wall as opposed to normal floating goals.

Playing in shallow water requires a different skill set than normal. Occidental has learned to use their shallow end to their advantage, which they demonstrated in their 16-12 win over Cal Lutheran last week. Cal Lu defeated the Sagehens 11-10 in overtime earlier this season.

Naturally, the Sagehens spent all week preparing for the strange environment of Oxy’s pool, practicing on their own wall cages and narrowing their playing field. One of the cages was raised to give the shooters a feel of shooting on both a larger and smaller wall cage.

This preparation paid off on Saturday. While the Sagehens have missed a large percentage of their shots this season over and around the goal, they significantly lowered this percentage and instantly adjusted to Occidental’s pool.

P-P’s previous loss to Cal Lu had dropped them to second and Cal Lu’s loss to Oxy had subsequently dropped the Hens to third. This win put P-P back in the 1st seed in SCIAC.

According to Rodriguez, the team needed to win by three in order to reclaim that top seed, which for good reasons he neglected to inform the team until after the game.

“I didn’t want to psych them out,” he said.

Most of the team thought they had to win by at least four, due to Oxy’s four-goal lead over Cal Lu. So when their five-goal lead in the fourth quarter dropped to three to end the game, they thought this would do nothing to improve their SCIAC standings.You can imagine the relief on the team’s faces when Rodriguez finally broke the news. All the Sagehens have to do to secure their seed going into the SCIAC playoffs is defeat CMS tomorrow.

They’re not going to give up easily. If 7 - 9am practices each week won’t keep you first in Division III, I don’t know what will.

Yet the amazing part is how the Sagehens can consistently excel despite their measly 13 people. Most teams of their caliber have around 20 members. Division-I teams can have upwards of 30.

The incredibly fast pace of college water polo requires that everyone who plays be in excellent swimming shape. Field players have to spring up and down the 25-meter course throughout 8-minute quarters, which tend to drag on much longer because the clock stops for a few seconds after every foul and penalty shot. When they’re not sprinting, they engage in offense-versus-defense physical battles for position. The set position, who sits about two meters from the goal, has to fight the hardest because the defense isn’t about to let a shot come from such close range.

Because of the physically taxing nature of this sport, about an hour of morning practice consists entirely of conditioning and endurance training--namely, swimming. The other hour is spent in the weight room on strength training. During afternoon practice, the water polo players swim for about half an hour, warm-up pass and shoot for the next 45 minutes, work on half-court shooting, driving, and various plays for another 30 minutes, and scrimmage for the last half-hour. For about an hour and a half of the practice, they wear 5- or 8-pound weight belts for extra resistance.

Not only is water polo physically difficult, but players also have to think. Occasionally the team will watch a video of a past game and analyze what they did well and what they could have done better, hoping to take that knowledge into the next game. Sometimes Rodriguez will come up with a new offensive or defensive play, and the team will work it out during practice. Players have to time when and where to pass, shoot, drive, shift to a side to give them or their teammate a better shooting angle, and concentrate on various ways to fake out the goalie while avoiding getting blind-sided by an incoming defender.

Goalies, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as physically strained during games as field players, but they have to know how to do dozens of different tasks at once. They have to know where all the offense is, predict when and where a shot is coming from, avoid getting faked out, and perfectly time their jump to block a ball. They also have to be wary of getting stormed by field players and know when they can come out to steal a ball without leaving a completely unguarded cage behind them. Goalies will help their teammates by directing their defense to a safer position, letting their defense know which offender has the ball, and counting down the shot clock when their team is on offense. This isn’t to say goalies don’t work hard in practice, as they join with the field players on a portion of the swim set as well as tread water holding medicine balls and -filled five-gallon jugs above the water for a leg workout.

The Sagehens’ superiority in fitness showed against Oxy last Saturday. As the season winds down into the final weeks, they plan to demonstrate this superiority during the playoffs and gain the SCIAC championship.

The Sagehens host their senior night, the last home game before SCIAC playoffs, tomorrow, Saturday Apr. 24, at 7 p.m. against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.