MPSF Breakup Causes a Chain Reaction In the East

Michael Randazzo
Water Polo Planet

The tremors of a recent radical realignment of Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s (MPSF) men’s water polo—with West Coast schools Pepperdine, Long Beach State, Pacific, San Jose State, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara breaking away to form the Golden Coast Conference—have resulted in a chain reaction that has reached the opposite coast.


The strong likelihood of the new conference claiming one of six NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament berths, as well as the possibility that the NCAA might reduce to four the number of qualifiers for its national championship, has sparked the impetus to dissolve what has until now been one of the largest single sport conferences in collegiate sports.


The Collegiate Water Polo Association, home to more than 40% of NCAA varsity water polo teams, has undertaken a radical realignment, leaving the conference—which at one point had 18 teams chasing a single NCAA tournament bid—split into two major divisions, both with a pathway to the NCAA tournament.


Under this new alignment, teams that have faced each other in conference play for decades will have their rivalries fundamentally altered: Princeton will join what was the CWPA’s Northern Division, which includes Brown, Harvard, Iona, MIT and St. Francis. Fordham, which has been competing in men’s water polo against archrival Iona since the 1970s, will join Bucknell, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins, Navy and Wagner (new this fall to men’s water polo play) in a Southern Division that will also include LaSalle, Monmouth, Penn State Behrend, Mercyhurst, Salem International, Gannon, Washington & Jefferson, Connecticut College in a separate western region.


Both new conferences will be administered by the CWPA.


Another casualty of the change: an Eastern men’s championship final that for 43 years has decided the East’s best will no longer exist. The two as yet unnamed conferences will crown their own champions, who will ideally play for the right to participate in the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament Final Four.


This months-long realignment process is seen as a pathway to future growth of the sport.


“The hope is that we create competitive structures that are attractive to new programs,” Dan Sharadin, Commissioner of the CWPA, said in response to an inquiry from Water Polo Planet. “Time will tell whether this current structure will achieve that goal. It certainly is a step in the right direction for teams of similar division affiliation to be competing against each other….”


Yet all this change does not guarantee an additional CWPA contestant at NCAAs. And if the new conferences cannot keep pace, the East may be altogether shut out of the national championship picture.


“The West Coast is breaking up and so is the East.”


The fracturing of MPSF, which since 1992 has been an association of water polo programs from the Big West, Pac 12, Mountain West and West Coast conferences, began with the revival two years ago of San Jose State’s men’s program. Last October at SoCal, Pepperdine’s legendary coach Terry Schroeder explained that gathering the MPSF’s six non-PAC 12 teams—the number required to start a new conference—allowed for the birth of the new Golden Coast Conference, with its own path to an NCAA berth.


“[N]ow we’ll have our own conference, so the only thing that really matters is who wins the conference tournament, said Schroeder, who in 1998 coached Pepperdine to the NCAA title—the last non-Pac 12 team to do so.


Brian Kelly, men’s and women’s coach for Iona, said the MPSF break-up was “absolutely” responsible for causing the CWPA to realign.


“No question there’s a cause and effect [between the] GCC” and change in the East.

Princeton’s men’s and women’s head coach Luis Nicolao described a sense of urgency, given the changes in the West.


“If we don’t split right now, the two play-in games might go away,” Nicolao,  said in February. “[T]hen you have three automatic and one at-large,” berths in a four-team tournament, a situation that would decidedly favor stronger teams in the West.


Nicolao said that the MPSF’s remaining “Big Four”—UCLA, USC, Stanford and UC California at Berkeley—will likely develop their own conference to insure continued Pac 12 dominance of the NCAA tournament.


“The big four are looking to entice two schools to… come their way. Let’s suppose next year they do….and they get an [NCAA] bid back,” he explained. “[N]ow you have four conferences [from the West]. That can take the bid away from the East.”


“The Mountain Pacific’s never going to have more than one bid any way you look at it, even though [it contains] the four best teams in the country,” Ted Bresnahan, Johns Hopkins coach, said. “What they’re playing for is just to get another at-large bid, which will put [the NCAAs] into an eight-team tournament.”


One immediate outcome is that the East is guaranteed an NCAA tournament game in the upcoming men’s tournament—the first since Princeton hosted the Final Four in 2009—but not necessarily in the future.


“One hundred percent, the [play-in] match is going to be played on the East Coast [in 2016],” said Kelly, who is on the NCAA Men's Water Polo Committee. Because beginning in 2017, the Golden Coast Conference will be eligible for an automatic bid, threatening Eastern participation in the national championship.


Inclusiveness Is Key


According to select participants, inclusiveness was a key consideration in the realignment discussions between the CWPA’s varsity programs, which—with the recent additions of LaSalle and Wagner—now number 20.


“All schools had equal representation,” said Sharadin, who described a series of meetings, emails and conference calls over six months that resulted in an “alignment committee” composed of Bucknell, Connecticut College, George Washington, Hartwick, Iona, Mercyhurst, Princeton and St. Francis.


The committee generated various proposals that were vetted and decided upon with each school having a vote.


“In this fashion, everyone was represented equally,” the CWPA Commissioner added.


“Everyone was facilitating opinions through realignment committee members,” said Kelly, a committee member. “In every situation that was created, there was someone who was not happy,” he added. “It essentially came down to the majority of people choosing this alignment as the one that created the best possibilities for everybody.”


Paul Macht, head coach for the new men’s and women’s water polo teams at LaSalle, confirmed that all had a seat at the table.


“I was on a conference call with the coaches in the proposed Western bracket of the Southern Conference. All of us have a say in whatever came to be,” Macht said. “CWPA has made it an inclusive process…”


Rivalries End… And Disputes Begin

“If history is any indicator, animosity would increase between the programs, as some institutions will feel slighted in the process. This may impact budgets requiring more travel, as teams refuse to play other teams in their regions.” CWPA Realignment Document


The real controversy was in deciding which team goes where.


The new alignments reflect geographic as well as conference considerations. The Ivy League squads—Brown, Harvard and Princeton—will now be together. MIT remains a natural rival to Harvard. But that doesn’t account for forcing Fordham, located in the Bronx, to play the majority of its games outside the metropolitan New York region.


The shift also transforms the Rams’ rivalry with the Gaels of Iona.


“Being ten minutes apart there’s a really big rivalry, especially over the past decade,” Kelly said. “You go to [an Iona – Fordham] game at either school, there’s as many people at that game as there is at Eastern Championships. It’s an amazing experience. I hope we don’t lose that now that we’re playing in separate conferences.”


Hopkins and Princeton—two elite academic institutions that have been squaring off in the pool for 23 years—will now only face each other in non-conference play.


“It makes sense to keep the Ivies together,” Coach Bresnahan of Hopkins said. “I’m disappointed that Princeton’s no longer in our conference…. It’s healthy for our school and for our athletes to strive for where the athletes from Princeton are.”


But what was lost to Princeton and Iona in local rivalries may be gained in strength of conference.


Rating Percentage Index, which calculates the strength of a particular team’s schedule as well as results, is most associated with how the NCAA determines at-large bids for its men’s basketball tournament. The NCAA Water Polo Committee has determined thatindividual teams’ RPI will be a deciding factor in selecting at large teams for the national championship tournament.


Brown (2014), Princeton (2015, 2011 and 2009) and St. Francis (2013, 2012 and 2010) have won the last seven Easterns, capturing the CWPA’s automatic NCAA berth. The strength of the teams in the North suggests that—for now—this reconstituted conference will be the East’s strongest and its champion most likely to receive a tournament bid.


But ascendancy in the East has been variable; the U.S. Naval Academy, for example, has captured more Eastern titles (nine) than any other East Coast program. And Hopkins came within two goals of representing the East last year at the NCAAs.


“I’ve been coaching at Hopkins for 25 years; [dominance in the East] has transferred between the South and the North four or five different times,” Bresnahan said.


The Divisional Question


There’s also the issue of Division I versus Division II or III schools. Bresnahan—whose D-III program is one of the East’s strongest—fought to keep Hopkins and MIT in the new conferences rather than being put in a separate group with D-II’s Mercyhurst, Gannon and Salem and the remaining D-III’s: Connecticut College, Monmouth, Penn State Behrend and Washington & Jefferson.


“I’ll play in whatever conference they tell me to play in, but it would be misaligned if they only took Division I teams and left the MITs and Hopkins behind—teams that last season were ranked in the top five [in the East],” Bresnahan said.

For Princeton’s Nicolao, there is a compelling reason for all the D-IIIs to stick together: a unified championship.


“Why wouldn’t you want to be with Pomona, Claremont, Hopkins and MIT, because at the end of the day you still get the same kids,” Nicolao said. “Nobody’s choosing Harvard, Princeton, Bucknell or Hopkins totally on water polo. They’re looking at the academic picture….That doesn’t change if they’re D-III or D-I. We’re still gonna play them.”


“So why [wouldn’t Hopkins] break away from us, be in a D-III conference, still play Navy and Princeton and Brown out of schedule, and then at the end of the year play for a [D-III] national championship?”


Then there is the issue of how to crown a champion from the East. For decades the CWPA has run a conference tournament that whittles down many contenders to a single NCAA qualifier.


But not any more.


“There is no longer an ‘Eastern Championship,’” CWPA Commissioner Sharadin said. “The Northern teams will crown their own champion and the Southern teams likewise. As it stands right now, in 2016, the two winners will face off in the NCAA play-in game to determine who attends the final championship.”


Change Effective Immediately


After a planning process that took months, the switch will go into effect immediately, in time for this fall. Bresnahan for one is confident the realignment—despite logistical challenges—will go smoothly.


“I don’t see that there’s going to be any bumps in the road,” the Hopkins coach said. “Outside of the new teams everybody’s played each other before.”


When asked about the impact of upsetting competitive balances that have taken years to calibrate, the CWPA’s decider-in-chief was sanguine.


“It really depends on your perspective,” Commissioner Sharadin said. “East Coast Water Polo is such a diverse group that changes like these affect programs differently.


“I think the compromise we arrived at after months of discussion was the best possible outcome under the circumstances.”