Men’s Water Polo Faces Tough Early Season Schedule

The old sports mantra, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish,” has encapsulated the Pomona-Pitzer men’s water polo team over the past two years. Facing the most difficult non-conference schedule of any team on campus, the Sagehens start off every season with a rigorous slate of games against national title contenders chocked to the brim with All-Americans and European hired guns, and peppered with present and future members of the US national team. While our beloved team tries their darnedest and competes in spurts, the superior conditioning, training, and skill of, for example, a USC or Pepperdine team is sometimes just too much for us to overcome.But: it’s not how you start but how you finish, and the P-P men’s water polo team can finish with the best of them.The early season schedule provides the toughest competition anyone can face and will give the Hens confidence come conference time. Champions of the last two SCIAC tournaments, the water polo team has been among the most successful in the athletic program, and there is no reason to believe they won’t do it again this year.Under the direction of coach Alex Rodriguez, who won a national championship as a player on the 1997 Pepperdine Waves, the current crop of Sagehens are poised to capture a third straight crown, a spot in the Western Water Polo Association post-season tournament, and a chance to once again compete against the big boys they played earlier in the season.“Our primary goal is to win SCIAC,” said Rodriguez, “and our secondary goal is to finish top four at WWPA’s. Our conditioning is a huge part of what we’re trying to improve in order to accomplish this.”In pursuit of these goals, the team returns some heavy talent with 2008 ACWPC 1st-team All-Americans and 1st-team All-SCIAC performers Ben Hadley PO ’11 and Ryan Balikian PO ’11. In Rodriguez’s eyes, “Ben has more energy than any human I’ve ever met.”The seniors on the team are Daniel Kadvany PO, David Rudolph PI, Andrew Ayres PO, Jason Henshall PI, David Lee PO, and rockstar Robbie Hayes PO. Hayes’ status as a team leader is due in no small part to his likability outside the pool.“We have such new-found respect for Robbie,” said Hadley. “If you thought he was a rockstar before, you should be in our locker room now.” When asked if his status outside the pool affects his relationship with his teammates, Hayes acknowledges that, “Yes. Frankly, it does.”While the seniors have won two SCIAC titles already, they will look to the underclassmen to provide depth and fill in key areas. Most improved player Mike Gormally PO ’11, Jaron Moler PO ‘12, and “Prospie” Kyle Pokorny PO ‘12 contributed to last season’s success but look to be more instrumental this season. Pokorny especially understands how difficult it will be for him to replace legend Grant Cooper in goal this season:“Legend? Grant imparted loads and loads of useful skills and taught me how to prevent the ball from entering the cage,” Cooper said. His intense focus as a two-sport varsity athlete should help make the transition to full-time starter easier.His focus manifests itself in his pre-game rituals. “Once we are all in our suits and ready to go, I can hardly make eye contact with my teammates.”Cooper’s drive is now showing up on the stat sheet: he currently leads the nation in blocked shots.Like all great champions, the water polo team does not rebuild, but reload. Freshmen who are expected to contribute heavily this year are Marky-Mark Hudnall PO ’13, Cody “Bojangles” Moore PO ‘13, and Jason “J-Cox” Cox PI ‘13. Hudnall is a quick little driver, Moore is a solid set player who makes strong moves, and Cox is the lone Pitzer freshman and possesses a lanky and deceptive shot.While the team is set to elevate its game after graduating only one senior off last year’s championship squad, the rest of SCIAC has raised the stakes to try to pass the Sagehens. There are Division I transfers sprinkled throughout the conference, including the addition of a UCSB transfer to CMS. Whittier and Occidental also get a boost with the addition of a couple transfers, and Cal Lutheran and Redlands both return strong squads coming off good seasons.In the eyes of experts, the Sagehens are not favorites to three-peat, but they have significant playoff experience with the current crop of seniors, who have participated in the SCIAC finals every year they’ve been on the team. If anything, Coach Rodriguez is worried about overconfidence.“We’re not the favorites this year,” he said. “Championship experience is important, but we need to realize that we aren’t good enough to just coast through the regular season and turn it on in the playoffs.”As always, the rivalry game at CMS at 7 p.m. on Oct. 21 has implications both personal and in the standings. Coming off an 8-7 overtime loss at home last year in the regular season, the Hens look forward to playing their co-campus rivals.While the CMS game remains the most important to fans, the team realizes that the level of play in SCIAC, game-in and game-out, will be much higher this year as all teams (sans Cal Tech) will step up the competition, making for a very entertaining season.Despite starting off the season 2-10, the men’s water polo team feels like it is playing at a high level and competing at a national level that few other P-P teams can claim in their respective sports.They know improvement is more important than results at this point in the season, and they have their strong work ethic and small ego to thank.“Coach does a really good job of instilling work ethic; or making it seem like we have work ethic,” said Hadley.Despite the team’s rabid following on campus, Hayes says Coach Rodriguez keeps them focused on the task at hand.“He makes us feel our estimated value of ourselves is approaching zero. Like some kind of calculus problem.”The team’s quest for a third straight SCIAC championship is going to be difficult, but fans have faith. Hayes doesn’t think God wants the team to win another title, “but my parents definitely do.” The start may be rough, but it is all worth it to finish on top.

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