Club water polo looks to defend national championship

| Sports Editor

The Midwest may not be known for the traditionally coastal game of water polo, but in the club sports world, Washington University is a hotspot.

Ranked No. 1 among Division III club teams, the Bears are in the midst of defending a national title. Wash. U. competed in its first tournament of the season Sept. 15-16 in St. Peters, Mo.

Much has changed recently in terms of the team’s organization and visibility, according to junior goalie Chris Lauber.

“Three years ago when I was deciding where I was going to go to college, I didn’t even know that Wash. U. had a club team,” Lauber said. “Two years ago, even, the team was kind of in shambles…Tim Greer and I came in, and at the end of our freshman year, we decided that we were going to kind of tag-team things and shape up the team a lot from where it had been.”

The team’s play improved rapidly. After finishing 6-8 in 2010, the Bears went 10-4 in 2011 and brought home a national championship.

Tim Greer, also a junior, became team president and Lauber the treasurer as the team stepped up its publicity efforts through a revamped website. A November fundraising project will feature calendars with players striking poses in their Speedos. Calendars will be sold in the Danforth University Center.

Beyond peripheral efforts to increase its appeal, the product in the pool has been the team’s primary marketing tool.

High-school water polo players have now not only heard of Wash. U.’s club team, Lauber said, but become interested in the school a result of it as well. For instance, sophomore team captain Shay Banton was a high-school All-American in Chicago before coming to Wash. U.

Banton, last year’s Rookie of the Year and a Men’s Club Second Team All-American, provides a physical presence as a two-meter offensive and defensive player. He has tried to fill the void left by a group of graduate students that departed after the national title season.

“We had a lot of graduate [students] who were big and strong,” Banton said. “This year, we’re a smaller team, but we’re very fast. I’m definitely the biggest guy on the team now, and I’m kind of taking over those big man roles playing either two-meter defense or two-meter offense.”

Greer, a utility player and 2011 First Team All-American, said the key for this year’s squad is adjusting to a new style predicated on speed. The team also has a new coach, second-year graduate student Nathan Todd, who previously played club water polo at Division I Purdue University.

“We’re going this season with a different strategy,” Greer said. “We’re looking to do some quick plays and some sneaky things to try and get some quick goals right away.”

The Bears put that strategy to the test in their opening tournament. On day one, Wash. U. cruised past Southern Illinois University, 17-6, and defeated Western Illinois University, 20-14.

Day two pitted the Bears against another Midwest club water polo powerhouse, Division II Lindenwood University. Lindenwood is tied for fifth with the University of Texas in the national club poll (Wash. U. is 16th). The Bears edged Lindenwood’s “B” team, 12-10, but could not vanquish the “A” team, falling 15-11.

“[Lindenwood is] a fast team; they’re strong. They’ve got a lot of really good shooters, and I think we did a really good job matching up against them—our conditioning really showed,” Greer said. “They beat us on a couple of plays—some of their shots went in and some of ours didn’t, and that was the x-factor. We were only down by a margin of two goals for the majority of the game.”

Wash. U. will have at least one more shot at Lindenwood, with the first try coming next weekend in a tournament at Western Illinois University. The same five Midwestern schools that played in St. Peters are slated to enter the Western Illinois tournament. Instead of facing Lindenwood’s “B” team, Wash. U. will get a crack at another cross-town rival, Saint Louis University, which dropped out of the Top 20 poll after Week 1.

The next weekend, Wash. U. will play host to the Missouri Valley Division Championship. The Division III Collegiate Club Championship is Nov. 2-4 in New England. And winning that final tournament is the ultimate goal for the squad, which already has one title to its name.

“It’s definitely helped our recruiting efforts—being able to say that we’re national champions has really brought a lot of attention to our program, and it’s also boosted morale a lot,” Lauber said. “This year we’ve really set our goals on taking it again.”