When the women’s water polo team gazed across the warm-up pool at Yale before its first-ever league game, the players saw a UMass-Dartmouth team poised to go varsity next year. With their matching warm-up suits, team bags and regimented pre-game routine, the Corsairs looked like they would provide the Ephwomen with a rude welcome to league play. Williams stomped on the Corsairs, however, winning 16-4.
A heady start, to be sure, but the growing pains were not long in coming. The women would lose their next nine games, including four by a one-goal margin, before meeting UMass-Dartmouth again in the last-place game of New Englands. Williams won the rematch of the two teams, finishing 10th in the division.
Ask the players and they can list for you a number of disappointments in between. There was the overtime loss to Wesleyan in the second game of the season, then another one-goal loss in the rematch. A comeback against Middlebury forced overtime, but ended in a sudden-death defeat. The rematch came a week afterward and Middlebury routed a stunned Williams 15-3. The players also remember the upset defeat to Holy Cross in the last qualifying tournament, guaranteeing Williams the last seed in the tournament.
“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a lot of frustrating moments,” said Jon Wiener ’02, who coached the team this spring.
But on the whole, the players take a broad view of their first season. With the exception of the second Middlebury game, the women played one-goal games with everyone but nationally ranked opponents.
“This season was the most successful ever for women’s water polo at Williams,” said Phoebe Fisher ’02, one of five seniors on the team. “It was excitingly awesome to be in a league and play lots of games, because games are the best part. Win or lose, it was hella fun.”
The team was able to join the Collegiate Water Polo Association this year when Wiener learned that the league’s qualifying tournaments for the first time did not overlap with spring break.
Presented with the option of competing on a regular schedule, the players jumped at the chance. However, as the time commitment increased, several players decided not to play this year.
Numbers fluctuated for a while, but in the end, 10 girls stuck it out, practicing three to four times a week and traveling on four different weekends. As a result, the group was tight-knit. “I am so stoked to actually get to play games this year,” said captain Alix Partnow ’02. “I like that we’ve got a smaller group of dedicated people and it’s been good to see people improve both individually and as a group.”
Of the players who remained with the team, only Partnow’s co-captain Cara Cipriano ’03 had any significant playing experience. A native of California, the sport’s hotbed in this country, Cipriano had played with the men’s team her freshman year. After enduring two unfulfilling seasons with the women’s team, she was looking forward to official competition.
“I love playing water polo, and this is the first time I feel like I’ve really gotten to do that here at Williams,” said Cipriano, who is a candidate for all-conference honors after leading the team in goals and steals all season.
“Having a coach allowed me to think more about the things I was doing and continue my own study of the game, which is one of the things that made this season so much fun for me,” Cipriano said.
While Cipriano was focused on getting back to form, many others were learning the game for the first time.
“We actually learned how to play this year,” said Fisher. “I am not sure what we have been doing for the last two years, but it wasn’t playing polo.”
Laurel Hensley ’03 had practiced and played in exhibitions with the team the last two years, but this year she found herself learning a new position. As the only goalie on the team, Hensley has a unique perspective.
“Besides the coach and players on the bench, I have the best view of what’s going on,” Hensley said. “It can also be really frustrating when I have three Yale or Dartmouth girls sprinting toward me with the ball…and no Williams defenders to be found to come to the rescue. . .. I only wish I had known what ‘sudden death’ was before it actually happened.”
It was also a new experience for Wiener, who has been playing polo for eight years and coaching for the last four. Having never coached girls before, he admits he was a little nervous about whether or not the team would accept his approach. At one point, after a qualifying tournament in which the girls went 0-5 with three one-goal losses, he received “a crash course in female psychology” from one of the captains. “Coaching these girls has been refreshing for me. I think we’ve both come a long way,” he said.
“This is a very exciting place for water polo right now,” said Wiener, who served as the men’s team captain in the fall and runs an age group program through the Youth Center. “Women’s water polo is the fastest growing collegiate sport in the country and we’ve got one of the best pools in the northeast,” Wiener said. “The commitment that the women have shown is really going to pay off for this program.”
The team will travel to Wesleyan this weekend for a newly revived Little Three tournament. The Ephwomen will meet Amherst for the first time and hope to avenge their two one-goal losses against Wesleyan.
Other than that, they have two immediate priorities: finding a home game for their senior-laden team and recruiting new young players for next fall and beyond.
“I think the team can’t help but get better, although it will be a challenge next year without Jon and all the graduating seniors,” Fisher said. “In my esteemed opinion, water polo is the best game ever invented.”
“Polo’s a ton of fun and I’m so glad people are willing to make it more intense with a higher level of commitment, because that gives us more chances to go out and compete,” Hensley said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to field a respectable sized team next year and have a coach to lead us. I want polo to continue at Williams and grow in popularity and strength as a sport.”