By BOB YORK —
There’s one piece of advice that many water polo players should heed above all other instruction: Keep your chin up!
This little tip has nothing to do with pulling yourself out of a slump, but rather avoiding a nosedive – straight to the bottom. A mouthful of water can leave you short of breath, your teammates shorthanded and your coach assembling a search party.
Obtaining a list of the lifeguard schedule has not proven to be high on Mark Scandling’s pregame prerequisite list, however. The Big Green coach knows his players know they weren’t born with gills, and he knows they know there’s a .768 percent chance they’re going to beat the brains out of the guys in the different colored swim caps.
Over the past six years, as skipper of the Deerfield Academy boys water polo program, Scandling has turned out a nearly unsinkable flotilla that has rung up a 96-29 record – for a .768 winning percentage. That figure also includes postseason games, where his charges have earned six consecutives invitations, six straight Final Four appearances and four New England Prep School Athletic Conference Tournament championships.
When it comes to its six tournament appearances, the Big Green has proven to be an all-or-nothing entry. The four-time gold medalist and two-time defending champion went home this year, as it did in 2009, empty-handed. This fall, Deerfield lost its semifinal round contest to Choate, 11-4, then dropped its third-place game to Brunswick, 9-7, after the Big Green’s leading scorer, Conor Sullivan (14), who posted 65 goals on the season, was forced to leave the game in the third period due to a broken finger. Exeter went on to win the title with a victory over Choate in the finals.
Despite finishing its season at 15-6 this fall, “due to an overabundance of injuries, we had a tough time sustaining our continuity,” said Scandling. “The injuries constantly forced us to come up with makeshift lineups, which incorporated a number of the younger players on the team. They all stepped up when their time came, however, so we’re hoping the unexpected experience they gained this season will prove to be helpful down the line.
One thing that the Big Green youth movement certainly helped was the team’s scoring. Not only did this crew tally 188 goals on the season, for an 8.9 goals per game average, “some of the younger kids chipped in and allowed us to have a much more balanced scoring attack than we might have had,” said Scandling. So, the Big Green mentor can now look forward to inviting three of his top four scorers back next season. In addition to Sullivan, a sophomore this season, next year’s roster will also include juniors Quinn Smith and Hugo Marsans, who finished third and fourth on the scoring charts this season with 23 and 21 goals respectively. Co-captain Oscar Miao (13), who received this year’s Coaches Award, was the club’s No. 2 scorer with 32 goals.
Miao, who was a part of two New England championships during his three-year stint on the varsity, credited his coach as the main reason why the Big Green has become such a consistent winner over the last three years.
“Coach Scandling prepares us very well for anything and everything that could possibly happen during a game,” said Miao. “He also teaches us to remain calm and patient, especially if it’s late in the game and we’re behind. He always stresses the fact that if we lose our cool, we end up helping our opponents and if we keep our cool, good things will happen … and they have.”
That fact could be found in the score sheets, as the No. 3 ranked Big Green saw six of its games settled by two goals or less this season, and in those close contests, Deerfield finished 5-1. It went 3-0 in one-goal games, and 2-1 in games decided by a two-goal margin.
“We lost, but we weren’t defeated,” said Scandling of his team’s back-to-back tournament setbacks, which marked the only time all season long that Deerfield lost two games in a row. “The kids learned a lot from their playing time this season and it should really help us as a good number of them will be returning,” continued the Deerfield mentor of a 17-man roster that listed just six seniors.
In addition to welcoming back three of his top four scorers, Scandling will once again have a pair of goalies to call upon next season in Francesco Franzinetti (14) and Patrick Hadley (14) who pretty much split this year’s goaltending duties right down the middle. They will also have Marsans around to help them out once again, as Scandling considers him “one of the best two-meter defensive specialists in the league.” And that’s quite a compliment, as the two-meter defensive specialists earn the unenviable task of trying to keep the opponent’s top scorer from scoring.
“I think things look good for next year,” said Miao, who has played his last competitive water polo game, as he has a roster spot awaiting him on next year’s Yale swimming team. “They have some key offensive people returning, as well as some important people on defense and both goalies, so I think they should be motivated to regain the championship, ” said the departing co-captain, who made it clear he’s not going to miss “all the pulling … tugging … grabbing … kicking … and scratching that goes on underneath the surface of the water and therefore, is pretty much undetectable by the referees.”