By Bob York
Two consecutive championships … four titles in the past five years … five straight tourney appearances. Based on those credentials, it would appear as though Deerfield Academy might be wearing out its welcome at the New England Prep School Boys Water Polo Tournament.
Fortunately for the Big Green, however, popularity isn’t a prerequisite for this pool party, talent is. It’s what gets you there and keeps you there. And with nine of 18 players returning from this year’s squad, Deerfield’s a good bet to be making more waves next fall, too.
“This one was particularly sweet … I think they always are when you’re able to rise up, in this case, from the fourth seed, and win it all,” said coach Mark Scandling, whose club won the previous year’s crown – but accomplished its mission via a completely different route.
“Last year, we came in here seeded as the number-one team,” said Scandling, “so there’s a good deal of pressure on you to perform well throughout the tourney … or at least for as long as you’re still competing.
“This year, we were seeded fourth,” added the Big Green skipper. “That means your trip into the tournament will be much harder on you physically, because you’re facing the top-seeded team in the semifinals. But, it’s much easier psychologically … there’s no pressure to win.”
Even without the pressure to win, Scandling still knew his crew would have a tough time getting back to the title round. For starters, the Big Green was going up against top-seeded Exeter, which had earned that distinction thanks to an undefeated season. Then, there was that 8-2 beating the Big Red had already handed Deerfield during the regular season. And if that’s not enough, there’s more: The tournament was being played at Exeter.
“Coach Scandling is a great motivator,” said Austin Bridges ’12, a Big Green co-captain, who finished his career with three gold medals dangling from around his neck. “He kept stressing all season long that we held our destiny in our own hands and that if we played the way we’re capable of, we’d be OK.”
“It was like we had them right where we wanted them,” said Chris Miao ’12, Deerfield’s other co-captain and another proud owner of three gold medals. “During the regular season, we’d trailed them by a 1-0 score at halftime, so we knew we could play with them.
“Plus, Exeter had blown everyone out of the water this season,” added Miao. “They hadn’t had any close games so we figured if we could stick with them, they might get flustered and make some mistakes.”
Well, Deerfield’s game plan played out perfectly. The Big Green stuck with the Big Red from start to finish and pulled off an 11-10 upset win. And from there, it was all down hill as Deerfield sank Choate, 11-5, in the finals for the fourth time in five years.
“The Exeter game was close from start to finish,” said Scandling. “Exeter held a two goal lead twice during the first half but was unable to pull away any further than that. During the second half, we got up by a pair of goals twice, but weren’t able to stretch the lead.”
Exeter trimmed that final two-goal lead in half but was never able to get any closer. Goalie Francesco Franzinetti ’14 turned a pair of clutch saves, and Jack Vallar ’12 stole the ball in the final minute of play to preserve the victory.
Will Grant ’12, who posted a team-high 82 goals on the season, led the way in the playoffs with a dozen goals – six in each game. “Plus, defensively, we had him cover Exeter’s top scorer,” said Scandling, “and he limited him to just one goal for the entire game.”
Grant earned the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award as well as being named the team’s MVP, for his two-way play, while Bridges (five goals) and Miao (two goals) received All-Tournament Team honors. Other veterans chipping in on the gold-medal effort were Henry Lee ’12 and Oscar Miao ’13, who will be one of next year’s co-captains along with Sloan Damon ’13.
Despite a 12-6 finish and a 5-1 start, Scandling took a three-game losing streak – which included a pair of one-goal setbacks to Suffield and Choate – midway through the season to heart and decided to make some changes.
“What made it worse was we were ahead in all three of those games,” said Scandling. “We became fatigued toward the end of those games and lost them.”
So, the veteran Big Green coach tried something as simple as changing the time of his practices. “We switched with the JV team,” explained Scandling. “That got us in and out of the pool an hour earlier each day and it really paid off.
“All these kids … particularly the seniors … have a lot on their plates here at Deerfield,” said Scandling. “Many are involved in AP classes and other leadership programs throughout the school and they need time to deal with it all successfully. So, I switched practice times with the JV team.”
The switch allowed the members of the varsity team to get through practice in time to do some studying or whatever needed to be done before going to the Dining Hall.
“It really gave us a boost,” said Bridges. “It freed up some time before dinner to tie up some loose ends … it even gave us the opportunity to go back to our dorm rooms for a little rest if need be.”
And it worked out well for Scandling, too. His charges showed their appreciation by going out and winning six of their last seven games.
“I generally make that switch of practice times every year,” said Scandling, “but this year, I made it a lot earlier in the season. Maybe next year, I won’t make a switch … maybe I’ll start the season off with the varsity taking the first practice.”
Scandling’s second move to help keep his players more rested was opting to develop some of the younger players on the bench much sooner than he normally had.
“Right after that three-game losing streak, I decided to get some of the younger kids involved,” said Scandling. “I figured getting them more pool time would allow them the opportunity to make a bigger contribution to the team.”
And they did. During the playoffs, Conor Sullivan ’15 helped out with a pair of goals, while Quinn Smith ’14 and Jay D’Amour ’13 scored one goal each as they were rotated through the lineup.