By BOB YORK
The Big Green beat the odds all season long, but in the end it couldn’t quite beat Andover.
“Due to injuries and illnesses, I don’t think we had a single game the entire season when everyone was at full strength,” said Mark Scandling, Deerfield Academy’s girls water polo coach. Nonetheless, his swimmers kept their heads above water and their title hopes high and dry by extending their season all the way to the finals of the New England Prep School Tournament – and beyond. That’s because it took a pair of overtime periods before the Big Blue prevailed, 9-7.
“I think it’s a real testament to how dedicated this team was,” said the proud mentor, as his swimmers have now garnered two silver medals and two bronze medals in four consecutive trips to postseason play. “Between kids coming down with mono and suffering various injuries that sidelined them for a good amount of time, we had, what I guess you could say, a challenging season.
“But we were fortunate,” added Scandling, “we had a bunch of kids who were not only willing to step up, but were able to step up, and they kept us going until we were able to get healthy again … or as healthy as we were going to get.”
The Big Green finished its season with a 9-8 record, “but with a few breaks here and there, that record could have easily been 14-3,” said Scandling, emphasizing the fact that half of those eight losses came by a margin of two goals or less. “So that shows that although our record wasn’t an outstanding one, we were in just about every game we played.”
During the tournament doubleheader, the fourth-seeded Big Green was ranked appropriately, as it had already lost to its two opponents and was also 0-2 against Exeter, the fourth entry, during the regular season. It had previously dropped 10-8 and 7-6 decisions to Andover, while Loomis had prevailed, 22-14 and 11-8. As for Exeter, it had captured in a pair of shootouts, 11-8 and 21-19.
In the finale, Averi Westerman (15) and Liza Bragg (13) netted five and two goals each to pace the Deerfield effort, while Bragg netted five and Westerman followed with three in the opener and both earned All-Tournament laurels for their efforts. Goaltender Maddie McGraw (13), meanwhile, produced 33 saves in the two games – including 21 against Andover – to earn All-Tournament honors as well.
Deerfield earned the fourth and final seed in the tourney by besting Hopkins School during a playoff by a 9-3 count.
“I think that was the first game all season long that we could consider ourselves at full strength,” said Bragg, who paced the playoff game scoring with four goals and finished atop the team’s scoring charts for the season with 75 points in 17 games. Westerman, meanwhile, finished the slate with 49 points, as Lizzie Jeffrey (13), who netted three against Hopkins, closed out her campaign with 47.
“It was just unbelievable the way the kids all stepped up this season,” said Bragg, a team captain and winner of this year’s Coaches’ Award, who, following the tournament, was diagnosed with mono. “I’m particularly proud of the younger kids, they really played hard when they got their chance and I think this is really going to help us in the future. Under normal circumstances, they never would have gotten so much playing time. But they did get a lot of it this year and that should make us that much stronger next year.”
Even McGraw, the team’s goaltender, was sidelined for a while with a shoulder injury, “and actually, for three games, we played without a goalie that had had any previous experience playing the position,” said Scandling. “But again, the kids rose to the occasion and we just kept on going.”
“Sitting out for those three games was really difficult,” admitted McGraw, “but I was so proud of the way both those kids played (Becca Cooley, 12 and Adriana Lopez, 13), it made sitting on the sidelines a lot easier.”
For Bragg, who is probably more at home in a pool up to her eyeballs in water than most people are walking – on grass up to the souls of their sneakers – saw yet another key to the team’s success this spring.
“What you need on your team is a couple of girls from California … like Lizzie and Averi … who’ve been competing in this sport nearly all their lives and then just get a few decent swimmers to follow along,” quipped Bragg, who has won four gold medals at each of the past two New England Swimming and Diving Championships.
“Then,” she quickly added, “all you need is someone like coach Scandling who knows how to keep you totally focused every minute you’re in the pool.”