With an undergraduate enrollment of under 3,000 students, St. Francis College of Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., calls itself “The Small College of Big Dreams.”
With its men’s water polo team headed to USC this weekend to face off against No. 2 UCLA in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, big dreams will need to come true for the No. 11 Terriers (16-8) to keep their season alive.
Though St. Francis won eight straight games to capture the Collegiate Water Polo Association Eastern Championship and earn an opportunity to play for the national crown, the Terriers own a 0-3 record and a minus-36 goal differential in games against three of the Bruins’ Mountain Pacific Sports Federation counterparts this season.
David v. Goliath comparisons come naturally between MPSF and CWPA East schools, as no school east of the Mississippi has played in an NCAA Division I final in the 43 years that men’s water polo titles have been awarded.
Still, the Bruins (27-4) will try to forget that they are a target, an attitude the team also held in the MPSF tournament this past weekend.
“The coaches, myself and (coach) Dan (Leyson), were open about it and said, “˜Hey, we’re the hunters, not the hunted. We haven’t really done anything yet and everybody’s hunting “˜SC,’” coach Adam Wright said on Sunday.
After a closely contested victory over Pacific on Friday, the Bruins did not live up to that approach on Saturday, playing tight and conservative water polo in a semifinal showdown with the No. 3 Cal Golden Bears, eventually falling 12-9.
The opening half of Sunday’s consolation match against No. 4 Stanford proved to be much of the same, with UCLA failing to get the ball into the center, forcing the Bruins to take low percentage shots from beyond five meters possession after possession. The team’s coaching staff equated the inconsistency to nerves.
“In the offseason, we’ll sit down and go through some stuff with sports psych, but we need to try to find a way to shut that off,” Wright said. “It was clearly an issue (Saturday) and everybody from top to bottom was out of sync.”
Early woes kept the score close for much of the game, and the Bruins found themselves on the brink of elimination when they lost the opening sprint in sudden death overtime. UCLA only just avoided the loss when a Stanford backhanded shot sailed wide of the cage in the period’s opening possession.
“It’s always nerve-wracking when you go to golden goal,” said senior goalkeeper Matt Rapacz.
“I’m just happy it went wide because with backhands you never know where it’s going to go.”
Given the opportunity to score, the Bruins converted, keeping themselves in the NCAA tournament picture.
“Something that we’ve done well these past couple seasons is to be able to see out a game whether it goes to overtime or not,” sophomore attacker Daniel Lenhart said. “I think our team stayed really focused because it was a life or death game.”