SCIAC teams agree to forgo NCAA tournament for spots in inaugural USA Water Polo DIII National Championships

The SCIAC will forgo the NCAA water polo tournament next year in favor of a new Division III competition. (Akshaya Amarneth • The Student Life)

Two teams in the SCIAC will be among the invitees to the first-ever USA Water Polo Division III National Championship in the 2019-20 season, the national governing body announced Tuesday.

SCIAC water polo programs, which are members of the NCAA, have agreed to forgo any potential appearance in the NCAA Water Polo Championship next season in favor of competing in the new DIII Championship, interim Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Athletic Director Mike Sutton CM ’76 told TSL.

By joining the new tournament, the conference hopes to inspire other DIII schools to sponsor water polo programs.

The NCAA currently holds a mixed division tournament that often pits top DIII schools against DI superpowers; SCIAC champions have frequently reached the postseason only to be flattened by star-studded DI squads. The NCAA would likely give DIII its own tournament if participation grows to 40 men’s and women’s teams, respectively, Sutton said.

There are currently fewer than 50 men’s and women’s NCAA DIII water polo teams in the nation combined, as the sport tends to slip to the club level at smaller institutions.

The new tournament, run independently from the NCAA, will also feature two teams from the Collegiate Water Polo Association — a single-sport conference that spans the eastern U.S. — the announcement said.

NCAA DIII water polo has long lacked a viable season-ending national championship. At one point, there was a self-funded women’s tournament called the Collegiate Three Championship, mostly won by SCIAC teams.

But through the 2018-19 season, every DIII conference champion received a bid for the open NCAA tournament. The Pomona-Pitzer men played in the NCAA tournament last fall before falling to DI Long Beach State in the opening round.

The two CWPA schools selected for the new tournament do not have the exact same agreement as the SCIAC teams, but are generally unlikely to receive an NCAA tournament bid anyway, because their conference includes strong DI teams. The idea of fining a DIII CWPA team “a couple thousand dollars”  should they opt to attend the NCAA tournament has been discussed, according to Sutton. 

A SCIAC team will host the first edition of the championships, once in December 2019 for men and the other in May 2020 for women. Hosting responsibilities will then rotate to a CWPA team every other year.

Sutton, who coached CMS water polo for 19 seasons and is heavily involved with the NCAA as a member of its DIII swimming committee, said the new tournament resolves an issue that has plagued DIII programs since the 1980s.

Sutton said that in his coaching days, CMS’ athletic director was not optimistic about sending DIII athletes to vie with powerhouse DI schools at the NCAA tournament.

“He said, ‘Okay, that’s great. How long are you going to enjoy that? Is that a really a good experience for our team, to take your team of non-scholarship athletes and have to line up with the number one team in the country or whatever it is?’”

Sutton likewise questioned the efficacy of competing against higher divisions.

“Do you legitimately have a chance to win [the NCAA tournament]? And so how are you framing that with your athletes? Is it okay to just show up? Are you giving 100 percent effort? All those questions are out there,” Sutton said. “I think all of us in our conference have experienced basically getting dissed by the bigger programs.”

Missing out on the NCAA tournament in the near future could be a necessary sacrifice to grow the sport in the long term.

“That’s what volleyball was able to do. They used the Molten Championship,” said Sutton, citing the DIII men’s tournament that ran from 1997-2011. “So we’re kind of on that same path. So we’ll see what happens.”

Update: This article originally quoted Sutton saying that CWPA teams would be fined should they attend the NCAA tournament, but that idea was never made official.

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