Calmer seas in water polo’s future

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Occidental College's water polo team notes that the transition from the old pool (pictured) to a new pool will affect how they play.

The Occidental men’s water polo team (0-7) played their sixth and seventh games of the season Sept. 23 at Taylor Pool. The first game ended in an 18–2 loss to Whittier and the second in a close defeat, 17–16, to Orange Coast College, in which Occidental led late in the fourth quarter. Despite the early losing streak, the team has been playing well, according to head water polo coach Jack Stabenfeldt.

The women’s water polo team will begin their season in the spring. Hi’ipoi Lee (senior) has played for the team since fall 2014. Since then, she has played under four different head coaches.

“These past four years have been a little tough … Jack was probably the most consistent thing or person that has been in this program throughout when I was here,” Lee said.

Stabenfeldt, the current head coach of both teams, graduated from Occidental in 2014 after a standout career on the team. He then rejoined the program as an assistant coach the following year before taking the head coach position in November 2016. Sean Grab, Christian Fischer and four-time All-American at Occidental Nanea Fujiyama ’13, join Stabenfeldt on the coaching staff.

“[The team] has its ups and downs with the coaching turnover, but Jack’s been the consistency, and he’s doing a really good job,” Nico Lipari (sophomore) said.

Stabenfeldt is now making the team his own, creating a new culture and mentality with specific goals and expectations. According to water polo player EJ Havens (first year), Stabenfeldt emphasizes five goals for the men’s team. Three of the goals center on in-pool performance: win the SCIAC conference, become the No. 1 ranked team in Division III and beat every East Coast team they face. The fourth goal is for all players to maintain a 3.2 GPA, and lastly, Stabenfeldt hopes his players will be the model team on campus. According to Havens, this fifth goal covers everything from how the players carry themselves and behave, to how they treat other members of the community and approach their academics.

Now that Stabenfeldt is finally returning stability to the water polo program, the arrival of a new pool next year will put the team in yet another period of transition. The new Townsend Crosthwaite Pool is projected to be completed by the beginning of 2019, so it is likely that the women’s team will begin playing in the pool spring 2019, according to Stabenfeldt. The men’s team will not play in it until fall 2019.

Taylor Pool’s unusually small size and shallow end currently make playing home games very different from playing away games in larger pools. The new pool will be regulation size— 34 meters by 25 yards— so the teams will be able to practice and scrimmage in the same conditions they compete in, which will improve players’ fitness and awareness of spacing.

“Playing in this pool is kind of limiting, considering the fact that when we go to other pools they have more width and length for them to run their offense and defense,” Havens said.

Although the team will be better equipped to do well, Stabenfeldt said that the water polo program cannot expect the new pool to guarantee the teams’ success.

“I think the first few years in the pool will be really tough, because we will have to adapt to the fact that the time is now and there’s no more planning for the big pool — the pool is here,” Stabenfeldt said. “It becomes maybe more likely for us to be successful, but it just means that we’re going to have to work a lot harder. There aren’t any shortcuts around that.”

Recruiting efforts may also be more successful with the new pool. Stabenfeldt hopes the men’s team will have around 22 players next year, compared to the 17-man roster this year. The women’s team, which currently has only nine players, will likely have an even more significant rise in number.

“It’ll be a lot more inviting to the recruits to see a bigger, full-competition pool versus what we have now,” Lipari said.

Both teams are very young — the women’s team has seven players that will return next year, including five first years, and the men’s team has eight first years. According to Stabenfeldt, the team is also faster than it has been historically, which will help with the counter-attacking style the teams use in the pool.

Even though the men’s team has not been getting their desired results early this season, there is a lot of optimism throughout the program, according to multiple players.

“The environment with the team — it’s not a big team, so it creates a really close-knit group. It’s exciting looking towards the future,” Lipari said.