- Carlos Steffens, Travelin’ Water Polo Man: From San Juan to Cal-Berkeley to the Olympics - 05/22/2020
- Miguel Rivera and the Fantastic, Unbelievable and True Story of Pitt Water Polo and Puerto Rico - 05/01/2020
- Human Cost Of Eliminating Women’s Water Polo; Hartwick Senior McKenty Speaks Out - 03/23/2018
Editor’s Note: In one of the seminal matches in Eastern water polo history, on November 13, 1977, Pittsburg faced Bucknell at the Joseph C. Trees Pool for the Eastern Water Polo League Southern Division Championship. A rematch of 1976 final, won 14-12 by Pitt, with less than a minute remaining the host Panthers held a two-goal lead and appeared headed to another NCAA men’s tournament as the East’s best team. But, in a memorable turn of events, the Bison rallied to force overtime and won the game 21-20 on a shot by Mark Gensheimer in the first minute of sudden death.
Following is the fourth in a series of articles about the participants involved in one the more memorable polo matches in Eastern intercollegiate history. The first was an interview with Bucknell’s Scott Schulte; the second was a conversation with Pitt’s Jorge Machicote; the third is a discussion with Bucknell’s Jay Fisette.
Few folks paying attention to water polo in the 70s—and outside of polo athletes, who was?—have likely heard of the University of Pittsburgh men’s water polo team and their brief but brilliant moment of success. The mention of Miguel Rivera, architect of those fantastic Panther teams from 1975 – 77, is likely to draw blank stares.
But, it’s all true. In 1976 Pitt, with a mix of players from Puerto Rico and local polo athletes, was the East’s best and went to the NCAA tournament. In 1977, the Panthers played one of the greatest games in the region’s history, when they lost 21-20 to Bucknell in sudden death overtime.
As quickly as the Panthers achieved unimaginable success, it all dissipated.
By 1978 Rivera had returned to Puerto Rico, where his exercise science doctorate degree earned at Pitt led to a respected career in the island’s athletic scene. By 1979, the program’s varsity status was also gone, a victim of budget cuts attributed to Title IX.
Still, memories of the program’s success persist, fanned by participants on both sides of a match, which not only decided the Eastern Water Polo League (EWPL) Southern Division title but a berth in that year’s national championship.
Rivera, now a Professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s Department of Physical Medicine, Rehabilitation & Sports Medicine, spoke with Water Polo Planet from San Juan about how he and a number of the island’s prominent players ended up in Pittsburgh, the rise—and fall—of Panther men’s polo, and the memorable match against the Bison that forever changed the course of East Coast polo.
– How in the world did you end up coaching water polo at Pitt?
I came to Pitt as a doctoral student in 1974. I had an in-depth conversation with a close friend, Guillermo Ramis, a doctoral student in economics at Pitt.
We talked about everything you wanted to know about Pitt but were afraid to ask. It’s worth mentioning that our close friendship extended over many years as swimming and water polo teammates.
Guillermo had a good relationship with Pitt’s swimming coach Richard Bradshaw, and before 1974 had been instrumental in bringing the Pitt swimming team to Puerto Rico for Christmas break training. He introduced me to Coach Bradshaw which led to a couple of meetings where I expressed my professional and academic goals as well as my background in swimming and water polo.
My willingness to start a water polo team at Pitt was part of the conversation. Coach Bradshaw followed with correspondence containing detailed information on Pitt’s Exercise Physiology doctoral program. That led to a trip to Pitt, where I met the department chairperson, the Director of the Human Energy Research Laboratory, and faculty members in the exercise physiology program.
– What was your first impression of the Panther athletic facilities?
Coach Bradshaw was available to show me their impressive aquatic complex. It included a 50-meter x 25-yard pool with a 10-meter platform for diving that met all the standards for international (Olympic) water polo competition. An additional 25-yard pool was part of the aquatic facilities. I indicated to Coach Bradshaw that it was a perfect setting for a water polo program without interfering with the swim team endeavors.
By early July, I established my quarters in Pittsburgh. After taking care of my academic chores, I went over to coach Bradshaw. My first words to him were: I’m here, and I want to confirm my promise of helping out with the water polo team.
It was a slow start. It took a while to reach out to the appropriate people, and one year later, the Pitt water polo team was a reality.
In the first season, we were not strong. Our second season was quite a different story. I concentrated on recruiting water polo players from Puerto Rico that met three criteria: high school seniors interested in continuing their academic and athletic careers in US universities, history of membership in a Puerto Rico 13-14 years or 15-17 years national team, and excellent academic credentials.
My central recruiting obstacle was California universities—due to the strength of their water polo programs. To counterbalance the attraction to California, I presented to potential recruits arguments that Pitt was an excellent university, [they would be] starters on the team as well as closer to home.
I don’t enjoy talking of myself, but the factors that helped me in recruiting student-athletes (water polo players) in Puerto Rico included my background in the sport. As a young player-coach in Puerto Rico, I had three senior national titles and a long history as a member of the Puerto Rico national team. That background helped convince the recruits and their parents to become part of the newly established water polo team at Pitt.
– Was it unusual that the Pitt Athletic Director and swim coach supported bringing in Puerto Rican athletes to play water polo?
The water polo players enjoyed the precedent establish by Puerto Rican swimmers and a diver at Pitt. Their outstanding athletic contribution to the swimming and diving program, as well as personal interactions, supplied the water polo players [with] an excellent presentation card.
Moreover, the arrival of the water polo players implied no financial impact to the Pitt athletic department or the swimming program. Most of the recruits’ academic scores were within the range to receive financial aid from non-athletic sources, interest groups sources, and other resources.
That was favorable to all—student-athletes, AD, and the swimming program. I just followed the process observed with the swimmers. Indeed, my initial conversations with Bradshaw had included the opportunity to apply the same procedures with the water polo players.
The administrators were favorable towards the concept because it did not touch the athletic budget.
I have been very fortunate through my relationship with sports, swimming, and water polo. Sports opened the door to attend universities that otherwise I could not have been able to afford. With lots of effort and dedication, I was successful at achieving my academic goals.
Once I obtained my Master’s degree, I thought about reaching young athletes that were on a similar track as I went through in sports. I wanted to help them out following the model that had helped me out.
– How did you get your start with water polo?
In Puerto Rico, my first water polo coach was Harry Hauck. I consider him as my adoptive father. He was in the Navy as an underwater demolition team member. He came to Puerto Rico from Detroit, Michigan as the coach of the Caribe Hilton Swimming Team. I had a friend who was a member of the Hilton Team, and he introduced me to Coach Hauck.
I guess he told Hauck I was a talented guy but didn’t have the resources to join the Hilton Swimming Team. Hauck told me, no problem, just come in. He provided me [with] the club card, and from there on, he took care of guiding me into the water polo world.
My first participation in an official water polo game was during the Puerto Rican National Championship in 1965. I became the goalkeeper of the Caribe Hilton Team for good, and not long after that, Coach Hauck, brought me over to the national team. I played for him for close to 15 years. The experiences lived and learned from coach Hauck are still with me and have become part of who I am today. I attempted to pass on coach Hauck’s philosophical view of the water polo game to every athlete at Pitt.
– Starting a program from scratch is not easy…
The initial year of the water polo team wasn’t all peaches and cream! Coach Bradshaw provided the essentials to get Us going, include top of the line caps (two sets of course), official “Voit” balls, and as a surprise top class “Speedo” water polo bathing suits with the Pitt logo.
The goal cages were handmade and painted by me under Coach Bradshaw’s supervision. The initial workout sessions were chaotic, with water polo balls all over the pool, falling in the swimmer’s lane, bleachers, and diving area. All concerned parties learned and politely adjusted to the new environment.
The prevalent concept was that the water polo playing field consisted of a 25-yard and narrow pool with a shallow and deep end. Therefore, we were given a practice area of 25-yard all deep pool by 15 yards. Eventually, we were allowed to practice in a championship dimension all deep pool (30 x 20 meters).
Our first year as a team, we finished third at the Eastern Championships. That year we lost to Bucknell as well as four times to Army. I recall some of the freshmen telling me: “This will never happen again.”
The team was not satisfied with its performance against Bucknell. The general feeling was that we could beat them. That year Army seemed to have the formula to defeat us no matter what. With Bucknell, there was something special; they were the team to beat in our conference.
Going to Bucknell was like going to play basketball at Duke. It was one of those places where chances are you’re going to lose. That first year we learned that and learned it quickly.
When we came home with a third-place trophy—not many were counting with us placing in the top six, seven, or eight at Easterns—that was a big plus, and everyone started looking at us a little differently. It made it easier to channel funds to travel to invitational tournaments as well as getting extra pool time practice.
– Year Two was a different story. What changed?
Our second year included a recruit from Paul Barren’s team in Pennsylvania. Paul was a highly respected referee and coach. He had been to Puerto Rico as a referee in the National Championships and the Christmas International Water Polo Invitational.
I had a lot of respect for him as a water polo enthusiast, coach, and referee. Through a phone call, he accepted an invitation to bring his team for a dual meet at Pitt. From that visit, Barry Ford, one of Paul’s players, decided to come to Pitt.
Barry was an excellent team player, driver, zone player, and shooter. A big plus for us. He joined Luis Toro, Adrian “Butch” Silva, Jorge Machicote, and Mike Mere from Puerto Rico. As first-year students, they joined Walter Young (senior goalkeeper), Serafin Rolan (sophomore), and Carlos “Tato” Santiago (junior) as the core of Pitt water polo.
That second season started with wins over Bucknell and Army. The core of first-year students established Pitt as a team to “look for” in the new season. We knew early on that we could go out and play the tough guys and beat them. From there on, Pitt started rolling toward their goal of winning the conference and the Eastern Championship.
That season we encountered difficulties with referees due to our style of play. We had an international style, which was quite different from most teams in the league. For some, our technique was too physical.
Let me make clear that by physical, our opponents meant that there was a lot of checking (touching opponent) with hands. That was part of the international or elite class water polo. And yes, we were a physical team in the sense that to beat us, you had to be in good overall condition.
That was part of the skills our conference required to develop or update. It also was a matter of becoming physically stronger because swimming ability only was not enough.
Many players became quite upset to the point of losing their temper due to our style of play.
– What’s remarkable is that in two years you built a program that became the East’s best.
My coach told me if you’re going to do something, do it well! Don’t come here and waste everybody’s time.
I knew that the guys I was coaching were talented, including the newcomers. If I were able to bring them up one nudge from where they were the first day at Pitt, we would be successful. That was our philosophy; just by pushing a little bit harder, the Easterns were within reach.
They bought my plan and dedicated themselves and in the second year, Pitt won their conference and Easterns, as well as a bid to NCAAs. The young team from the East going to the famous Belmont Plaza [pool] in Long Beach, California, to play at the NCAA Collegiate Water Polo Championships.
It was a dream come true for such a young team. They had the technique, the know-how of the game, and were not physically overpowered (they did not allow it). They were short on a permutation of adulthood-maturity-experience at a high-end level water polo like the USA National Collegiate Championships. Perhaps I was part of that equation!
For example, at that time, UC Irvine was one of the top teams [in the nation]. We were ahead in our match, and they call a time out. I get the guys together and say: We’re beating the national champions from last year. We’re ahead; we belong here!
I noticed a dramatic transformation in the expressions of some players—from enjoyment to an unfamiliar, and I don’t like this look. We lost the game. After the match, various coaches and spectators asked what happened. The question was obvious. My response was that I feel I lost the game for them. I had a motivational expression that changed everything—and it backfired on us.
– Then there’s Year Three: the 1977 season.
People forget that there are two Pitt vs. Bucknell key matches worthwhile to be mentioned here. One was the first match of the season at Bucknell. It took place in the presence of a standing room only packed pool arena. [Scott] Schulte was at that game. It was his first year at Bucknell.
It was a close game with Pitt or Bucknell up-two or down-two into the final minutes. The game came down to the last 8 seconds with a tie score.
Let me explain a critical detail. The rules had major cumulative and minor non-cumulative fouls. If your team accumulated three major fouls, the opponent team was awarded a free or penalty shot at the goal. That is, you could appoint any player, in the water, to take an un-guarded shot 4-yards away from a 10-feet-wide goal with only the goalkeeper as a defender. Even the best goalkeeper had way below odds of stopping the shot.
Pitt had the ball with 8-seconds left in the game, and we call a timeout. Bucknell had two major fouls against; therefore, we call for a play to get the third major foul on them. Our hole player was to receive the ball in the two-meter line and attempt to take a shot.
Our strategy worked as planned, and Bucknell committed their third major foul. As a consequence, we earned a penalty shot, scored, and that was the game—we beat Bucknell at their pool.
All the screaming and shouting we endured during the match, suddenly was gone. The pool area became so silent that you could hear your steps. The crowd vanished as if transported someplace else. I knew that was a big upset for Bucknell, a team with character and tradition. Mike Schofield, a Pitt player, came out with a black eye.
It was a rude game! For me, the Eastern championship game was a replica of that first game.
– What happens in the final against Bucknell with Pitt protecting a one-goal lead?
That season was a long one for us. Defending a championship is harder than winning one.
In that season, we had a freshman goalkeeper, Steve Feller, from Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. He replaced one of our key players. As a newcomer to the team, we spent lots of quality time throughout the season to get him ready for this Pitt – Bucknell match. Indeed, he carried us to victory in many games with his defensive maneuvers, including blocking penalty shots. He had a phenomenal season.
So, we are in the finals seconds of the game, and after Bucknell scores, we call a timeout. Most of the guys saw beforehand the strategy Bucknell was going to attempt after the time out.
We were expecting that two Bucknell players were going to defend our goalkeeper since, by rule, he had to put the ball into play. The referee was Paul Barren, who would allow both teams time to set up. Then he would throw the game ball to our goalkeeper who had to put the ball in play.
Bucknell set up just as we had anticipated. Two Bucknell players were to attack our goalkeeper. That meant we would have an open/unguarded player in the field to receive the goalkeeper pass. Our free player was positioned on the right side of the pool all by himself.
I selected Mike Mere (RIP), the more composed player on the team, to receive the pass. Besides being coolheaded, he was a talented player and swimmer. With the distance he had away from the two Bucknell players, it was a matter of outsprinting them. Downfield, we were ready for an extra man offensive play or major foul to our strongman.
The timeout over, Barren throws the ball to our goalkeeper. In an attempt to catch it, [Feller] dropped the ball. The ball was not yet in play because he was not able to have a clean catch from the referee throw. I think that under the pressure situation, the applying rule never crossed his mind.
Rather than pick the ball-up and immediately pass it to Mere, he opted to lift the ball off the water (by that action, the ball is now in play) and then tries to swim away with it. Goalkeepers usually have lots of trouble getting out of those situations. To make it worse, our goalkeeper was attacked by two excellent Bucknell players. Jay Fisette of Bucknell took the ball away and passed it to [Bill Vanderwilt] to score the goal that tied the game for Bucknell. It was a big rivalry, and Bucknell grew-up to the moment.
– It could have been an entirely different outcome.
During our timeout, if I recall it right, Mike Mere suggested switching to Jorge Machicote as the goalkeeper. He was another coolheaded, savvy, and among the most experienced players, we had. He knew how to handle this situation.
It was a great idea. However, I wanted my goalkeeper to go through the experience. In his first year, he took us to the Eastern championship game with his excellent goalkeeping, courage, and dedication. In less than a second, I saw about his future and self-confidence moving forward as a player. I wanted him to be part of it until the end. My trust was on him. The rest is history.
– As a spectator, the expectation is always that the player will successfully execute in the clutch.
This case exposes just how difficult certain situations can be. The spectator sometimes does not take into consideration that we’re dealing with human behavior. That is quite an unpredictable factor at the highest level of Olympic and professional sports and during the early stages of a real amateur collegiate athlete.
As I previously indicated, the combination of intangible factors such as adulthood-maturity-experience is highly present in the collegiate sports arena. You get those with time and exposure to situations. A coach can call a play, and it is up to the players to execute it. [Laughs.
There was nothing for us to [complain about]. During the season we won games and we lost games. In life, as in the sports world, you have to learn how to deal with losing and winning. You have to appreciate and enjoy the moment.
In that respect, I will never forget about Coach Hauck. He would say: This is a game and as such you have to enjoy it. If you do that, you win no matter what.
By going through the experience, you win. Losing is gaining new knowledge. I wish my players feel that way. But after all these years, you have to have fond memories of those times. It was a winning situation for all.
– In that next year, after this great rivalry has been established, the Pitt program did not continue on the trajectory you had laid out for it.
I had set high goals, and I accept that. However, the situation was this. I had completed my doctoral degree requirements and needed to get a job. Remember that my coaching was voluntary. Several openings opportunities were available in Puerto Rico. At that time, Puerto Rico was getting ready to host the 1979 Pan-American Games. There was an opportunity to Coordinate the Scientific Congress, join as a faculty member in a local university, and become a partner in a Sports Medicine Clinic. Also, there was a possibility to stay at Pitt as a graduate assistant.
I spoke with coach Bradshaw and heard the school’s intention to provide future support. I met with Dr. Peterson (RIP). He was the main driving force that pushed for the Pitt Aquatic complex. His vision was to have a comprehensive program, including swimming, synchronized swimming, diving, and water polo encompassing instructional and competitive aspects. Things were in place for the continuation of the team.
The decision to leave was not easy. I still feel how uncomfortable it was. I knew the guys were looking forward to coming back and with strong commitment and desire.
At that time, in 1979, fresh out of a doctoral program, with personal and professional goals to accomplished, and under the existing conditions, I needed to move forward. It was necessary to take a step forward into the professional world endeavors along with my family.
Now, I am in a position to be a backer of the team. The coaching spirit is still with me.