Athletes have off games throughout their careers—games where everything seems to go wrong, and they cannot shake feelings of sluggishness and incoordination.
Sometimes this phenomenon happens for an entire team—plays performed over and over in practice do not run smoothly, there is a lack of communication, players lose sense of where they are in relation to their teammates and a collection of incredibly talented players cannot pull off a win. They just cannot remember how to work together.
Games like that happen from time to time, but you just do not expect them to occur in a championship.
It did not take long to see that something was not clicking for the Pomona-Pitzer men’s water polo team during last Sunday’s 16-8 SCIAC Championship loss to the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Stags. CMS came out strong, taking the first two goals of the game as the usually effective perimeter shots from the Sagehens found the arms of the CMS goalie and the defenders instead of the back of the net. The Sagehens fought on, with two goals from Philip Clayman PO ’16 and Clayton Hardman PO ’15 keeping the Hens in the first quarter.
Nobody was particularly worried at this point. The Sagehens had bounced back from greater deficits, most notably the 4-7 deficit they turned into a 11-7 lead against CMS the previous weekend at home. Most felt it would only be a matter of time before the Hens found their rhythm and emerged victorious despite a rocky start as in many of their last 10 SCIAC games.
The referees seemed to be calling significantly more 6-on-5, man-up ejection fouls against the Sagehens than against the Stags, with five called against the Sagehens and one against the Stags at one point in the second quarter. Usually these fouls are called more evenly to allow equal man-up, 6-on-5 opportunities for both teams.
As the second quarter played out, the lack of communication and teamwork became more and more apparent. The Sagehen offense was far too cluttered, often finding three players huddled close to the goal and to each other, all individually looking for an opportunity for a close range shot but unaware of the location of their teammates and the CMS players defending them. This collection of defenders right in front of the CMS goal made it difficult for the Sagehen shooters to penetrate the line of shot blockers and the goalie.
The CMS offense played out differently. Each individual player was spaced out to give the set in front of the goal plenty of room to operate, and the perimeter shooters drew out the Sagehen defense to remove the focus from the setter, allowing for some quick, point-blank shots two meters in front of the cage. The Stags worked with this offense to take a commanding 7-2 lead through the second quarter.
Perhaps in their frustration at the referee calls, at their own inability to set up a smooth offense, at the large number of Stag goalie and field blocks or at a combination of all three misfortunes, the Sagehens began to get discouraged.
In the occasional possessions where the Sagehens removed some of their offensive clutter, they showed glimpses of brilliance. The combination of Stephen Vint PZ ’15 and setter Jarrod Gaut PZ ’14 carried the Sagehen offense, as Vint had five assists and one goal, and Gaut had four goals. Gaut’s first goal came in the second quarter, when Vint sent him a quick entry pass off a time out to break the Stags’ scoring streak in the second quarter and narrow their lead to 7-3 at the end of the second.
The Stags scored again at the beginning of the third, but the Vint-assist, Gaut-goal pair struck again for another point-blank goal out of the set. Despite the attempt to turn the momentum in favor of the Sagehens, the Stags commanded the third quarter with another four-goal run. It was midway through the third quarter, and the Sagehens knew they had to turn something around in order to make the game close. With the help of some man-up opportunities in the third, the Sagehens managed to narrow the Stag lead to 12-7 with a goal from Vint.
The Stag offense kept up in the fourth, however, and the Sagehens fell to a decisive 16-8 loss. The Sagehens and Stags ended the SCIAC season tied for first, as the Sagehens’ 8-0 record during the regular season kept them in first despite a loss in the championship match. Including their wins in the quarterfinal and semifinal matches, the Sagehens currently have a 14-15 overall record and are 10-1 against SCIAC opponents.
The Sagehens will have a chance to redeem themselves this weekend at Whittier College at the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) Tournament in the final three games of the 2012 season. Their first match is today against Division I 11th-ranked Loyola Marymount University, who beat the Hens earlier in September. Following the LMU match, the Sagehens have another opportunity for a rematch against SCIAC opponents, where they hope to rebound from last weekend’s championship game.