The Claremont-Mudd-Scripps men’s water polo team came from behind to defeat Pomona-Pitzer 12-11 in a high-stakes Sixth Street rivalry game Nov. 22, giving the Stags an automatic bid in the inaugural USA Water Polo Division III National Championship.
“I honestly think it was one of the crazier games I’ve been a part of,” said Ethan Lewis CM ’20, who had four goals in the SCIAC tournament semi-final victory that ended P-P’s season.
CMS (17-11, 11-3 SCIAC) fell to No. 1 seed Whittier 13-12 in Sunday’s SCIAC tournament final, but still has the opportunity for a possible rematch.
SCIAC teams agreed earlier this year to forgo a potential NCAA postseason appearance — where DIII schools tend to be clobbered by DI programs in the combined-division tournament — and instead will send CMS and Whittier to compete with Johns Hopkins and MIT.
The inaugural four-team tournament will take place at Whittier on December 7 and 8, with CMS facing Johns Hopkins in the first round.
On Friday, though, hopes of competing in either of those games looked bleak, as the Sagehens (21-11, 11-3 SCIAC) came out firing and went up 7-2 in what Lewis called “just a really unfortunate quarter” for the Stags.
“I personally thought that everything that could’ve went wrong, went wrong for us,” he said.
The Hens maintained control of the game and their five point lead in the second quarter, and led 9-4 at halftime.
“They had us in the first half, I’m not gonna lie,” Sam Harrison CM ’22 quipped.
Halftime, however, was a turning point for the Stags and marked a dramatic shift in how the rest of the game would go.
The team’s halftime talk was along the lines of “‘wake up, let’s get going and do what we know how to do and change how we’re playing. Put more energy into it,’” Harrison said. “It really just put our minds right.”
Starting with a goal from Will Clark CM ’22 with two minutes to go in the third period, CMS went on a 5-0 run to tie the game at 9-9. From there, the battle intensified and five goals were scored in the final four minutes of the match.
CMS looked like an entirely different team in the pool in the second half.
“Definitely the third, fourth quarter I felt the energy resurgence and excitement,” Lewis said. “I think the fourth quarter was for sure that final momentum shift that everything was really going our way.”
In the middle of the fourth quarter, the Stags began to realize that not only had they dug their way out of a five-point hole, they had a legitimate shot of winning the game and upsetting the reigning SCIAC champions.
“That was an ‘oh shit, we can do this’ moment,” Harrison said. “It just pumped everyone up that much more and we really went all out.”
Lewis’ game-winning goal, assisted by Clark, came with only 37 seconds left and allowed CMS to avoid overtime play — in which they had fallen victim to P-P in eight periods during the rivals’ last matchup Nov. 13.
“We brushed it off,” Harrison said. “We took it with a grain of salt — that last overtime loss — and it gave us more drive and energy to train really hard the week in between.”
P-P was the higher ranked team going into the game and had won the last three SCIAC titles, but collapsed against the Stags on Friday.
“To be up so much … and end up losing in a fashion like that is obviously really difficult,” Dylan Elliott PO ’21 said. “I think the hardest thing was … none of us were prepared for that to be our last game.”
The Sagehens were feeling confident going into the semifinal, and there was a sense among the team that this match “was going to be our fourth-to-last game, and that we were going to make it all the way to the national championship game,” Elliott added.
Despite the heartbreak, the team plans to turn the loss into more competitive fire for next year’s season.
“The most important thing is to remember what happened on Friday, to remember the goals we had this season [and] that we weren’t quite able to achieve them,” Elliott said. “If we use those as motivation going forward and the guys step up in the way that I know we can, I think the sky’s the limit for this team.”
For the Stags, the historic rivalry made the win even sweeter.
“Beating [P-P] meant the most for sure,” Lewis said. “The last three years have been pretty tough with them but … finally finishing that last leg of beating Pomona-Pitzer and getting over that hump that you just couldn’t quite do the last few years is just a great feeling.”
Friday’s win shows that CMS has “a really great chance at competing and I would say winning [the tournament],” he added.
Lewis credits the success of this year’s team to a change in culture, where everyone is buying in.
“I think the work ethic and the chemistry has been there,” Lewis said. “Everyone’s just really ready to win and I think that wasn’t necessarily the same attitude we had the last few years.”