With men’s water polo season a mere three months away, we decided to keep the momentum going from our interview with UOP’s Head Coach James Graham and sit down with another coach this month for Water Polo Planet. This month’s choice coaches in the shadow of our nation’s capital for a school that is looming as a sleeper in the East this year.
Scott Reed is entering his tenth season as the head coach of George Washington and is guiding a program that is carrying a lot of momentum. Last fall the Colonials closed with a flourish as they defeated Harvard 7-5 to claim third place at Eastern Championships. This capped a remarkable turnaround to a season that started with a 12-4 loss to Fordham at the Navy Labor Day Open.
Coach Reed is well known from his playing days at UMass where he captained the Minutemen. While playing for the former Eastern powerhouse, Reed was on the 1992 UMass team that were presumptive favorites going into Eastern Championships. The Minutemen lost that year in a one-goal thriller to Navy in the semifinals, however that run served as the steppingstone for greatness. Starting in 1993, UMass made NCAA's in six of the next seven years including four Final Fours. We got a chance to speak with Reed about both his George Washington team and the tragedy that was UMass dropping their men’s water polo program in our interview below.
I have George Washington pegged as a real sleeper in the East this year as you return the core of your offense in first-team All-South performer David Zenk, John Claude-Wright, Marshall Freedman and Nick Eddy. Is there any added pressure going into the season with all that experience coming back?
I honestly believe that these guys are feeling no pressure whatsoever. What they accomplished last year was great for this program. It showed my guys that with hard work and focus that they can compete with anybody. This is one of the most focused groups I have ever coached. They rarely lose their composure and if something doesn’t go right, then they always move on to the next step.
The lone position where no experience is returning is in the cage. I noted that you signed Alex Sotolongo from Coral Gables, FL. Tell us a little about him and how he is going to fill the giant shoes of Chris Whittam?
It is never easy for a freshman to step in and be “the man” right away. Alex will have some tough adjustments to make, but I think he can make them very quickly and will feel comfortable with what the team is doing in a very short time. He is a very determined and focused individual. The only pressure that Alex will be feeling from the team is for him to just play his game and not let anything get to him from a mental standpoint.
I watched your team get drilled by Fordham at the beginning of the season in the Navy Labor Day Open. At the time, I didn't think George Washington would be a factor at all in the East. By the end of the season, your squad was really clicking as you beat Bucknell at Southern's and then Brown and Harvard at Eastern's. What sparked the turnaround in your team?
From the very beginning last season we were preparing for Eastern Championships. That was when the team was going to be rested and that was the time we were going to be at our best. But, they had to understand that they have to be able to play great water polo under tired conditions and that they have to be mentally focused for each game. They learned the hard way against Fordham. Mentally they were not focused and were clearly thinking about the UOP game more than anything else. That loss was a big learning experience and they never took any team for granted the rest of the season.
Navy as always is looming as the team to beat in the South despite the fact they are losing a lot of their firepower. What does your team have to do in order to climb that hurdle and get past them in the South this season?
What makes Navy a great team every year is their consistency. They play an aggressive up-tempo game. They never let up and they always have the depth to back up their style of play. In order to beat Navy our team will have to learn to be very patient with our shooting and protect the ball at all costs in order to slow them down. If we force the half court game, then I think we have a chance to win.
Tell us a little about David Zenk and what makes him a great player?
David Zenk is the type of person everyone would want on their team. He has done it all. David has speed (two-time Atlantic Ten swimmer of the year), game awareness (led the team the last two years in assists and steals), and has a knack of finding the back of the net when he wants to shoot the ball. He puts this all together for every game and because of that he makes his teammates better players. You never see him lose his cool and he never complains to the refs, he is always focused. The scary part of this is that I don’t think he has even come close to his full potential as a water polo player.
You played for a water polo coaching legend in Russ Yarworth. What did you take away most from that experience?
Confidence is everything. Russ always coached with a lot of confidence and never second-guessed himself. All of us would follow him to the very end without any question. Russ always expected the very best of us and never took crap from anybody. Water polo suffered a major loss when UMass dropped its program.
To me, the biggest water polo tragedy since I have been playing/following the sport was when UMass dropped their program. As an alum and former UMass player, what are your thoughts on the university's decision to drop a program, which was a perennial Eastern powerhouse?
UMass did what just about every other school in this country does. Retain a program (IAA-Football) that loses millions of dollars a year and drop seven other sports that add up to virtually nothing to try and make up for the losses. Dropping Men’s Water Polo made no sense at all. Every school is driving for national attention and the one program that did that on a consistent basis was given the ax. Every school should follow Boston University’s example. BU did it right when they had to make cuts. They dropped football, kept everything else and even built a new Natatorium. I am no expert, but I am sure that BU is doing very well fiscally because of that decision.
With that our interview ended. I will personally take Scott Reed’s comments one-step further. I thought that the decision by UMass to drop their water polo program was as shortsighted as I have ever seen. This was a team that brought the school national recognition for being dominant. Had UMass retained the sport there is no doubt in my mind they would have broken through and played for a national title at some point between 2000 and 2010. This was a team that had tremendous coaches and incredible players in Luis Limardo, Brian Stahl, etc. As somebody who had the opportunity to play and get my head kicked in by them at least four times in my college career, I feel a sense of loss from looking at the standings and not seeing that institution’s name in there. Quite frankly, UMass dropping their water polo program ranks as the biggest water polo tragedy of the last twenty years and I do not think it is close. As a sport we miss that program. I just hope that someday the administrators at UMass realize that they miss it too.