Over the weekend of April 8 and 9, the Knox Women’s Water Polo club team travelled to conference rival Washington University in St. Louis’ tournament, winning all four of their games against conference opponents.
This tournament served as the final tuneup against outside opponents before the team goes to the conference championship tournament this weekend. Held at Grinnell College, the winner of this weekend’s tournament will advance to Nationals.
The division has historically been dominated by Washington University’s squad, though senior captain Clarice Bernett explained that Knox has been closing the gap in recent years.
“The year before I got here, we finished in last place at conference. My freshman year we were fourth. My sophomore year we were second but lost to WashU 10-1, and last year we took second and lost to WashU 6-3,” Bernett explained.
This year’s team, captained by Bernett and sophomore Emma Newman, is made up of 11 players, four of which are freshmen.
Recruiting, however, is not always easy, though the team works hard to gain attention from the Knox community to attract new players.
Newman is extremely happy with the number of new participants. “I feel like we were really lucky this year in terms of the interest in polo and swimming,” she said, referencing the high number of committed newcomers.
Bernett understands people’s trepidation in terms of joining the Water Polo team, as it adds an incredibly physical element to the swimming that people are familiar with.
The team is open to accepting just about anyone who wants to play.
“We’re really willing to take on anyone who is interested as long as you do not drown when you’re in the pool. Speed, strength and comfort will come with time,” Bernett said.
This is also the first year in which the team is fully student-led, as Assistant Professor and Chair of Economics Jonathan Powers has not been allowed to coach the Water Polo team because of his previous position as the Swimming and Diving coach. According to NCAA rules, allowing Powers to also coach the Water Polo team would count as “off-season training,” which is not allowed.
However, Bernett noted that Powers still supports the team.
“He has always been a great support system for us. He is there to answer questions for us if we need, but he has to be a bit distant,” Bernett explained.
The Water Polo team has worked very hard to build a positive community, something senior goaltender Laura Lee cites as one of the biggest reasons she stayed on the team all four years. After entering Knox with no intention to swim or play Polo, Lee decided to try it out because of a broken foot that would not allow her to run, but with which she could still swim. Immediately, Lee was impressed and pulled in for good.
“The team was super relaxed, yet dedicated at the same time. There was a lot of respect for everyone no matter age, gender or skill level. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and team dynamic, so I stayed,” Lee said.
Bernett echoed this, saying that the team is about a lot more than just winning.
“Supporting each other in and out of the water is really important and shows the strength of the team. This team is more than just playing the game, it’s kind of like family too,” Bernett said.
Water Polo at Knox is considered a club sport, not a varsity sport, meaning that the school rarely gets the same amount of support or attention given to other teams on campus. This, and the fact that the team is student-led without a coach, does not stop the team from working hard to improve.
Practicing Monday through Friday for two hours, the Water Polo team also meets in the fall, though that is technically the Men’s season.
Because of the low number of male participants on the Water Polo team, the Fall Term Water Polo team is made up of mostly the same players who are playing this term for the Women’s team.
Though they faced all-male competition most of the time, the Water Polo team managed to stay competitive in all their matchups.
Lee appreciates this opportunity to play with the men during the fall season.
“It is really great to have the guys on the team because they bring their own experience and skill to Polo from which we can learn. And the guys are just as excited to learn from us as well,” Lee said.
Lee sees the Water Polo team as a place where every participant can grow as a person and as an athlete, stressing how close this team has gotten over the year.
Not only that, but the team has steadily improved throughout the entire school year, allowing them to dominate the competition at the Washington University tournament earlier this month.
Lee was so pleased with the team’s performance in some games at the tournament that she “could have been underwater for half the game, and my team wouldn’t have let a single ball in” even though her primary job is to protect the goal.
At this tournament, the team decided to bring sophomore Joseph Hilger along to be a bench coach.
Hilger, who plays goaltender for the Men’s Water Polo team, was put in charge of making substitutions and calling timeouts, something which Newman said greatly helped her concentration.
“We were able to focus on the game a little more instead of worrying about that stuff,” Newman said.
Since returning from the tournament, the team has returned to its normal school schedule, meeting five times a week in intense practice sessions to prepare for this weekend’s tournament.
“We try to structure our practices around themes like getting open for passes or setting up during an ejection so that each day we are learning something new,” Newman said, explaining the ways in which the team has been focused on improving their weaknesses.
Coming into the season, the team knew that it had the larger goal of making it to Nationals, but they focused on smaller benchmarks to improve their play.
“We wanted to work on communication and focusing on our strengths and improving our weaknesses,” Bernett explained, citing just a couple of the team’s areas of focus.
The time for the players on this team to work on their craft is coming to an end for the year as the team travels to Grinnell this weekend to determine its Nationals fate. For some, Water Polo is a new game.
For Bernett, a captain entering what could be her final tournament of competitive Water Polo, the incredible dedication and appreciation for the game will not end this weekend, regardless of the team’s results.
“I’ve been swimming and playing polo for eight years now, but I can never get tired of polo. I have had so many similar races in swimming, but every game in polo is so different. It is just awesome,” Bernett said.