Water polo, a sport mostly thought about only every four years during the Olympics, might some day be New York City’s collegiate calling card.
Three Big Apple schools — two men’s teams and one women’s — are among the NCAA’s best. St. Francis Brooklyn’s men rank 16th in the nation by the Collegiate Water Polo Association, and Fordham placed as high as 19th earlier this season. The Wagner women’s team has won the past four MAAC championships and hasn’t lost a conference game this season. They’re all qualified for their respective conference tournaments this weekend.
The city’s relationship with water polo dates back to the end of the 19th century. According to The Washington Post, the second Madison Square Garden at 26th Street and Madison Avenue hosted water polo’s U.S. National Championship, which featured the two best club teams in the country, in 1899.
As the nation developed out West, water polo’s hub came along with it. A California school has won the NCAA men’s water polo championship every year since its inception in 1969. But, more often than ever, Californians are making the cross-country trip to NYC.
“I get an athlete every year that hasn’t seen snow,” said Wagner head coach Chris Radmonovich. “It’s that type of personality that is looking to try something different. We talk to recruits about doing something different and trying something new, see a completely new part of our country.”
Fordham skipper Bill Harris believes the city offers West Coast players something they can’t get in the Golden State.
“There are a vast number of athletes that’ll go to USC, [California], UCLA or Stanford and won’t play very much,” he said. “Now, the athletes have figured out that, coming east, they can be able to play and get a great education.”
St. Francis head coach Bora Dimitrov, a Serbian immigrant, has adopted an alternative recruiting approach. He heads a team comprised almost entirely of foreign-born players.
“New York, for people from Europe, is by far the number one city in the United States,” Dimitrov said. “That’s why I think water polo can grow in New York in so many different ways. New York is a magnet for young prospects and recruits, not only from Europe, but from the West Coast of the United States and Florida.”
Yet, there is still a scarcity of local products playing water polo in the city. St Francis’ Alexander Teplitsky, a Brooklyn native, is the lone NYC representative on any of the three squads.
For Dimitrov, New York will never have a true ascendance without an influx of local talent.
“Bringing West Coast kids is a great thing. Bringing kids from Europe is a great thing,” he said. “But it’s never going to be the real deal until we bring local kids in.”