Under head coach Bacharach, the Fordham water polo team has held strong through the mid-season after emerging from a year full of uncertainty. (COURTESY OF PAMONA-PITZER ATHLETICS)
Under head coach Bacharach, the Fordham water polo team has held strong through the mid-season after emerging from a year full of uncertainty.

COURTESY OF PAMONA-PITZER ATHLETICS

Thrown in the Deep End: Fordham Water Polo Finds Strong Mid-Season Form

Through inexperience and pandemic, Rams continue stellar 2021 season in California tournament

October 5, 2021

The Fordham water polo team won three of four games at the Gary Troyer Tournament in California on Friday, Oct. 1, and Saturday, Oct. 2. The Rams, ranked 16th in the most recent Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) poll, proved superior against a gauntlet of unranked West Coast programs before losing 12-6 to #7 Long Beach State University in their final game of the weekend.

A few months ago, even Water Polo Head Coach Brian Bacharach couldn’t have confidently predicted that the team could compete at this level. In fact, it would have been difficult for the coach to make any prediction at all: An unprecedented list of challenges lay ahead as he looked to carry on a tradition of immense success.

New Leadership for Water Polo

From his All-American playing days at the University of California, Berkeley, Bacharach always seemed to have a Midas touch as a leader. When the Bears won the NCAA Championship in 2006, he was one of the team’s captains. In his first season as an assistant coach at Fordham in 2013, the team went to the CWPA Championship after three years without qualifying. By 2017, the Rams were nationally ranked for the first time in more than three decades, a feat they repeated in 2019.

“I didn’t know if it was going to come to fruition as quickly as it has.” Brian Bacharach, water polo head coach

But in May 2020, the heir apparent to longtime head coach-turned-assistant Bill Harris became the new leader of the program in a world of uncertainty — one that extended far beyond the Francis B. Messmore Aquatic Center in the Bronx.

For nearly two years, the COVID-19 pandemic affected collegiate athletics mercilessly and indiscriminately, and the Fordham water polo team suffered accordingly. In a shortened 2021 spring season, the Rams had nine games scheduled but only played one, a 17-11 victory over Iona College on Feb. 12. Bacharach was undefeated after one season as head coach, but the challenges ahead made future projections murky.

“Expectations were mixed … I knew that we had some talent coming in and I was excited about it,” Bacharach said. “I didn’t know if it was going to come to fruition as quickly as it has.”

“I had the best understanding of what we had coming in, but I don’t think there’s a coach in America right now who knows 100% what they’re bringing in.” Brian Bacharach

The first challenge was a common one to many teams taking a two-year break from competition, as a lack of returning talent resulted in a young, inexperienced roster. Gone were former captains Joseph Agabs, Gabelli School of Business at Rose Hill (GSBRH) ’20, and Phillip Wang, GSBRH ’21. Statistical leaders like Jake Miller-Tolt and Tristen Knoflick, both Fordham College at Rose Hill (FCRH) ’20, graduated as well. Going into the 2021 fall season, the team’s titans of yesteryear were replaced by relative unknowns — even to those who recruited them.

Finding players for college water polo overseas is a widely accepted practice. Eight players on Fordham’s current 22-man roster come from Europe, which means that extensive travel for coaches in the offseason is common. Evaluating talent in so many regions is usually difficult. During a pandemic, it’s practically impossible.

In order to fill the massive hole left behind by many of the team’s graduating players, Bacharach had to recruit first-year students without traveling to watch them play due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Jacopo Parrella, GSBRH ’25, is from Naples, Italy. George Papanikolaou, GSBRH ’25, is from Athens, Greece. Lucas Nieto Jasny, FCRH ’25, is from Barcelona, Spain. All three played at the highest level in their home countries, but they were recruited to play for Fordham on the basis of film and highlight reels alone. Their respective impacts, along with those of four other first-year recruits, were literally unimaginable.

“I had the best understanding of what we had coming in, but I don’t think there’s a coach in America right now who knows 100% what they’re bringing in,” Bacharach said.

Rocky Beginning

When games began on Sept. 2, Bacharach recognized that the team wasn’t completely ready to compete, as problems he anticipated before the season persisted. Older players were essentially two years out of practice. Outside of one game in February, the team had not played a full schedule since 2019. Meanwhile, younger players had to adjust to the speed and sophistication of college athletics.

Even more issues plagued foreign-born players. In the pool, Bacharach said that players from overseas often find the American brand of the game less physical than in other parts of the world. New players to the stateside game had to learn the referees’ tendencies, which required playing time.

“When you’re a freshman, it’s an overwhelming experience, and it’s particularly overwhelming when you’re an international freshman.” Brian Bacharach

In a more meaningful sense, many of these teenage student-athletes must attempt to compete in the midst of highly stressful moves to a new country. They are taking classes in what is often not their native language. The change in culture requires time to adjust and their families and friends are an ocean away. Bacharach described “lapses” in their play during practices and games, and it was impossible for the coach to find fault in their inattention. Sometimes, distractions are inevitable.

“When you’re a freshman, it’s an overwhelming experience, and it’s particularly overwhelming when you’re an international freshman,” Bacharach said. “Everything is coming at you at once, and it can be a lot. There are times where you’re going to lose focus.”

Despite all of these struggles to adjust early in the season, the team found success right away. In their second game on Sept. 4, the Rams defeated Harvard University, ranked 11th in the country at the time, in the Crimson’s first regular-season home loss since 2018. 

It’s as elegant as it is chaotic and involves rapid shifts in momentum, strings of goals and hectic scrambles for possession.

But by Sept. 12, the team had played seven games in nine days and compiled a meager 4-3 record. In matchups against #14 California Baptist University and #12 Princeton University on the weekend of Sept. 11, Fordham lost 13-12 and 13-6, respectively. The Rams were nearly unranked on Sept. 15, falling from 16th to 20th in that week’s CWPA poll.

In a sport where games are stacked so closely together, Bacharach acknowledged that teams rarely prepare for every opponent on the schedule beforehand. Instead, opponents learn about one another throughout the game and react accordingly in the time remaining. It’s as elegant as it is chaotic and involves rapid shifts in momentum, strings of goals and hectic scrambles for possession.

Though the team showed flashes of potential early on, Bacharach said that players were failing to make the necessary adjustments against high-tier opponents. Issues beyond the pool weren’t helping. If not for a new wave of leadership, it’s likely that the team’s middling play would have continued.

Upperclassmen Step Up

While many of the team’s older stars departed in the previous two years, a few remained for the 2021 season and immediately made themselves integral. As a sophomore in 2019, Bailey O’Mara, GSBRH ’22, was selected as an All-American goalkeeper and set the single season Fordham record for total saves at 351. His return to the pool for a full season in 2021 was a resumption of a stellar career. He is now a co-captain.

“The captains and this older group that we have has really taken a concerted effort to try to have the right framework for how to get things done the right way.” Brian Bacharach

Former All-American players Dimitris Koukias, FCRH ’22, and Jason Hiremath, FCRH ’23, were also returning to the team and were identified by Bacharach as part of the team’s core.

“The captains and this older group that we have has really taken a concerted effort to try to have the right framework for how to get things done the right way,” he said.

At the beginning of the season, Bacharach and Harris had a conversation about Hans Zdolsek, Gabelli Graduate School of Business ’22, in which they were hesitant to make him a captain. As a recent transfer student from Whittier College, where he earned three First Team All-American selections, the coaches were concerned about his lack of time spent at Fordham. But Zdolsek has thrived as a leader this season, and as a foreign-born player himself, he has proven to be a valuable mentor for his younger teammates.

“If you come from Northern or Southern California, the top programs, the sophistication of the game isn’t that wildly different.”Brian Bacharach

“We needed someone who they could look to and say, ‘this guy knows what I’m going through,’” Bacharach said. “A lot of times, you forget how you got to where you did, but Hans and Dimitris are huge parts of those building blocks in terms of what we’re trying to do and what we can eventually accomplish as a group.”

Though the Rams barely had a winning record two weeks into the season, Bacharach felt that the young team had not yet reached its potential. With the right guidance, the Rams seemed capable of much more, and the weekend of Sept. 18 loomed large on the calendar.

Turning the Tide

At the Bison Invitational in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Fordham faced off against the host, #15 Bucknell University, in its first game of the event. Despite entering as the underdog, the Rams busted the game wide open, taking an 11-4 lead in the third period on the way to a 13-9 victory. A pair of first-years shined in the decisive win, as Parrella and Papanikolaou scored seven goals combined.

Since 1969, no team located outside California has ever competed in the NCAA Championship game.

The victory was the beginning of a five-game winning streak for the Rams as they swept the Bison Invitational and defeated #20 United States Naval Academy the following weekend. After reclaiming the 16th spot in the CWPA rankings, Fordham went from a declining 4-3 team to a 9-3 East Coast powerhouse, just in time for the team’s biggest trip of the year so far.

The Gary Troyer Tournament is an event hosted by four colleges in California and has appeared on Fordham’s calendar since 2008. Historically, it has never been the team’s strongest event, partially because collegiate water polo in California is fiercely competitive. A Berkeley graduate himself, Bacharach understands the geographically lopsided nature of the game firsthand. Even out of high school, West Coast athletes have a distinct advantage entering college.

“If you come from Northern or Southern California, the top programs, the sophistication of the game isn’t that wildly different,” Bacharach said. “It’s just the speed and strength of the athletes.”

Since 1969, no team located outside California has ever competed in the NCAA Championship game. As of Sept. 29, 15 of the 20 ranked programs come from the West Coast, and two of the five outsiders are Ivy League institutions. Only one team comes from the Bronx.

Competing in CA

Between Thursday, Sept. 30, and Saturday, Oct. 2, the Rams were scheduled to play six games. Four of the games were in the Gary Troyer Tournament, culminating in a matchup against #7 Long Beach State University. The challenges were apparent, but Fordham had gathered momentum in the previous two weeks. In two games on Thursday that served as warmups, the Rams steamrolled the University of Redlands and Mt. San Antonio College by a combined score of 30-12.

In the first game of the tournament on Friday, Fordham played California Lutheran University. An offense that seemed unstoppable for the better part of three weeks suddenly stalled in the early stages. After the first period, the Lancers led the Rams by a goal and scored again early in the second to take a 3-1 lead.

As he did all game, Parrella saved the Rams once more.

With Fordham behind, Parrella responded with back-to-back goals to tie it. In the last two minutes of the period, Jasny and Curtis Vidinoff, GSBRH ’23, scored a pair in response to a California Lutheran goal to give the Rams a 5-4 lead at halftime.

Through 16 minutes of play, momentum changed hands several times, but Fordham couldn’t manage to maintain it for long in the third period. The Rams didn’t score for the first seven minutes of the second half as the Lancers scored four goals to take a commanding 8-5 lead. If not for late scores by Parrella and Hiremath, Fordham likely would have entered the final period facing an insurmountable deficit. Instead, another goal early in the fourth gave California Lutheran a 9-7 lead with 6:42 remaining.

As he did all game, Parrella saved the Rams once more, scoring another pair of goals to tie the game at nine with 2:46 remaining. After nearly four periods of fierce defense, goalkeeper O’Mara took center stage with the game on the line. After a series of turnovers, California Lutheran shot twice on goal but failed to score, giving Fordham possession with just over a minute remaining.

“I think they’re well aware of what’s coming their way today.” Brian Bacharach

The ensuing possession for Fordham was for the win, but it didn’t go to plan. What was originally a designed play created by Bacharach quickly turned into a scramble as California Lutheran came desperately close to seizing possession. 

With the shot clock winding down, the ball ended up in Papanikolaou’s hands with his back facing the goal. Nine seconds remained when the first-year from Greece twisted around and emphatically dented the twine as the shot clock expired to give the Rams a 10-9 lead. 

California Lutheran somehow found two more scoring opportunities on the ensuing possession but O’Mara stopped both to give Fordham the victory. After the game, Bacharach was pleased with Parrella, whose five goals repeatedly brought the Rams back into contention. But he had especially high praise for O’Mara, who kept Fordham alive when they couldn’t score.

Bacharach clarified that the team was not about to underestimate their upcoming opponent.

“This might have been Bailey’s best game of the year so far,” Bacharach said. “Being able to step up and make not only those blocks down the stretch but some really tough key blocks throughout the game … is really what an All-American goalie does for you. He really led us today.”

One could argue that the team should have done more to help O’Mara, as the offense was uncharacteristically quiet besides Parrella. But the Rams secured a scrappy win to extend their winning streak to eight games, and the players made it easier for their goalkeeper (and their coach) in the next two games.

In their second game Friday and first game Saturday, the Rams played Westcliff University and Whittier College and won 13-6 and 14-11, respectively. With a game against Long Beach State University on the horizon, the team was riding a 10-game winning streak and undefeated run in the tournament. But after Fordham’s first game on Saturday, Bacharach clarified that the team was not about to underestimate their upcoming opponent.

They’re playing on the wrong side of the country.

“I think that there’s a huge step up between Long Beach State and the other five games that we’ve won out here. I don’t think that’s a secret,” Bacharach said. “I think they’re well aware of what’s coming their way today.”

Remembering What Matters

For five minutes of play against Long Beach State, it appeared that Fordham had the upper hand, as the team quickly took a 3-0 lead in the first period. The game from there was predictable and of little note. Fordham only managed to score three more goals for the rest of the match and Long Beach State regrouped professionally, scoring three goals in each period and cruising to a 12-6 victory.

A defeat against Long Beach State was a deflating end to Fordham’s phenomenal West Coast invasion. The results of this weekend may or may not lead to a higher ranking for the team in this week’s CWPA poll. But even if their impact isn’t reflected immediately, it is nevertheless invaluable.

Two months ago, Bacharach and Fordham water polo were not a fully formed team, as unfamiliar first-year athletes worked to replace established stars. The team was two years removed from its last full season and was struggling in and out of the pool. Leaders have stepped up and the team has gone 10-1 since Sept. 18 while knocking off two nationally ranked opponents.

They’re playing on the wrong side of the country. Many of the players are still working to make New York City their home. Bacharach believes that the team is still making inexperienced mistakes and therefore has untapped potential going forward. But a national championship for the Rams remains a pipe dream — they’re simply not strong enough to tackle the Pacific powerhouses — but for those interested in improbable, defiant success, Fordham water polo games are once again a must-see.



About the Contributor
Photo of PATRICK MOQUIN
PATRICK MOQUIN, Sports & Health Editor

Patrick Moquin, FCLC ’22, is majoring in journalism and oversees Fordham sports coverage for The Observer. He played baseball in high school and also follows horse racing and motorsports, though he’s allergic to horses and doesn’t have a driver’s license. He most thoroughly enjoys his time at The Observer when he’s working with other editors and writers.

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