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Sports

“Water Polo Is Home”

12.3.16

Noah Harrison
Photograph by Paul Rutherford/Harvard Athletic Communications


Noah Harrison
Photograph by Paul Rutherford/Harvard Athletic Communications

Joey Colton
Photograph by Paul Rutherford/Harvard Athletic Communications


Joey Colton
Photograph by Paul Rutherford/Harvard Athletic Communications

Later today, the Harvard men’s water polo team will square off in the NCAA final four against top-seeded University of Southern California. Competing in Berkeley, after winning their play-in game last Saturday against Bucknell and beating UC Davis earlier this week, Harvard is the only team to be more than a bus ride away from their home pool: on the other side of the semifinal bracket, UCLA will match up against Berkeley. 

Harvard’s game is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. EST, and can be watched live here. [Update: the Crimson lost its game Saturday against the heavily favored USC, and the following day, Berkeley beat USC for the NCAA championship title.]

For the guys on coach Ted Minnis’s squad, it’s been a big year. Their 12-2 start to the season was the best in Harvard history, and a nine-game winning streak stretched through most of September. On the way to a Northeast Water Polo Conference championship—and the team’s first-ever NCAA tournament invitation—the Crimson defeated Brown and Princeton, two perennial East Coast powerhouses.

That’s a different story from seven years ago, when Harvard went 7-17 and Minnis was still a club-team coach out in California. He often sent athletes on to the Ivy League, but almost never to Harvard. When he was hired in 2010, that was the first item on his to-do list: “just to get the Harvard name out there.” Before reporting for duty at Blodgett Pool, he stayed out on the West Coast for several weeks to recruit players. “I got hold of the equipment manager here and said, ‘I have nothing that says “Harvard”; can you send me something?’ And he sent me a couple of shirts, and I wore those shirts every day. I’d go home and wash them and put them back on.” That fall, he came to Cambridge and started coaching.

This season’s team is 27-6 and hails almost entirely from California, including two of its stat-sheet leaders, seniors Noah Harrison and co-captain Joey Colton. Last month, as the regular season was winding to a close, Harrison and Colton sat down with Harvard Magazine to talk about strategy and seahorses and what it’s like to play a West Coast game in an East Coast town. The interview is edited and condensed below.

 

The position you both play is attacker. What does that mean?

Colton: The way I like to tell people about it is that you’re almost like a point guard, or a shooting guard, in basketball. The way players attack the game is similar.…If you almost imagine people set up along the three-point line in basketball, that’s what you do. So, you make drives toward the goal and try to score from the inside, or you shoot from the outside. Some attackers will post up, which pretty much means the same thing as in basketball.

The pools you play in are seven feet deep. So, what’s going on under the water during a game?

Colton: A lot. [Laughs] Obviously there’s touching and grabbing. Some games get a little more physical than others, but for the most part, it’s grabbing elbows, grabbing sides, pulling, pushing off.

Harrison: Pulling Speedos, kicking. Light punching is fairly common.

Colton: So much goes on underwater that you can’t see. It’s kind of like an iceberg. Sure, you can see shots and passes, and every once in a while it’ll get a little physical above the water, but so much happens under the water. That’s where so many individual battles are won.

So how many bruises do you come home with?

Colton: So many. So many scratches and bruises.

Harrison: I think I’ve got scars all over. This scab here on my face right now, a kid tried to gouge my eye out a little bit and he missed. But you don’t hold a grudge. It’s the game.

How did you start playing water polo?

Harrison: I started after sixth grade, because my younger brother had been playing. I’ve been in the water my entire life. I think I had my first swim lesson when I was nine months old. Joined a competitive swim team when I was five.…I’m just infinitely more coordinated in the water than I am on land. It’s more natural for me. I surf all the time when I go back home, I do advanced open-water scuba diving. The water feels more like a home to me than a soccer field or a baseball diamond.

Colton: I started swim lessons when I was probably two and was swimming competitively when I was three or four. My three older siblings all played water polo. My dad played water polo. So I was practicing with them—well, I thought I was practicing with them, really I was probably just floating in the corner—when I was four or five. I think my first game was when I was seven. And I’ve been playing ever since.

Is it strange playing such a California game all the way over here in Cambridge?

Colton: It does feel different. When we go back to California, where it’s warm year-round, and swim in outdoor pools, the water feels fresher. You’re alive in a different way.

Harrison: Also: less pale. 

Colton: That too. But obviously water polo is home no matter where. And being with all these guys, on a team that’s so close.

Harrison: The relationship within the team is incredible. My favorite thing is traveling. Even though you’ve got long bus rides and you get behind in your work and you’re playing in foreign pools, it’s one of the closer experiences you can have. That brotherhood and camaraderie. It’s us against the world when we go out there.

What do people unfamiliar with water polo misunderstand about it?

Harrison: That there are no seahorses.

What?

Harrison: I’ve gotten this question a lot from people who have never seen the sport. They’ll be like, ‘Are there horses under the water?’ Or, ‘Where do you keep the horses?’ They literally think it’s polo in the water.

They must be kidding, though.

Colton: No, they’re not kidding.

Harrison: They’re really not. I wish I could say they were.

Colton: People also ask, ‘How do you tread water for so long?’ And the thing is, it’s not just that: you’re treading water, but you’re also swimming, and you have guys hanging on you, guys grabbing you. And you have a ball you have to account for. And all these rules.

Harrison: It’s like a combination of swimming, wrestling, basketball, and, at times, UFC fighting. All at once. It’s great.

You can really see that when you watch a game in person.

Harrison: That’s true. People say, ‘Oh, I saw it on the Olympics—it’s so cool.’ And I think people don’t realize there’s actually water polo happening here on the East Coast, this close to them. But it’s right here. Our season is in the fall, and the [Harvard women’s] season is in the spring, and all the schedules are online. Come on out.

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Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

 

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