By Bob York —
Whether you win it or lose it, it’s always a bitter sweet way to end the season. It’s that dreaded consolation game … that battle to capture bronze when you came in quest of gold. It’s that game that simply means you were good enough to make it to the tournament, but not good enough to make it to the finals.
Up until this fall, the Big Green seemed to perceive the New England Prep School Athletic Council Boys Water Polo Championships with an all-or-nothing attitude. Over the past six years, Deerfield Academy had either won it all, as it did in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011, or came up empty handed, as was the case in 2009 and 2012.
This season, having earned its seventh consecutive berth in the tournament’s Final Four, the Big Green found a happy medium: It didn’t win the gold medal, but it didn’t head for home without something to show for its efforts, either. After falling to Exeter by an 8-7 count in overtime in the semifinals, second-seeded Deerfield grabbed the bronze medal by sinking top-seeded Brunswick, 16-11, in the consolation contest. In the finale, fourth-seeded Andover captured the championship by knocking off archrival Exeter, 6-5.
“We showed a great deal of resilience … we showed the ability to be at our best when it meant the most,” said Big Green coach Mark Scandling of his team’s strong tournament finish. “The players deserve a great deal of credit … they had the perseverance to battle back from a heartbreaking overtime loss to knock off the tournament’s top-seeded team in the second game.
“Physically, water polo is a very demanding sport, and close games … especially overtime games … can be mentally draining as well,” added Scandling, who tutored the Deerfield girls water polo squad to a New England crown last spring and whose girls teams have earned a berth in the tourney finals during three of the past four years. “That said, it is also one of the few sports I can think of that requires its teams to play two tournament games in the same day.”
And so, Deerfield’s day of double dipping began at 11:30 am with its showdown against Exeter, following a 10 am game between Brunswick and Andover. The Big Green exited the pool around 12:45 pm, but not before 34 minutes worth of playing time had evolved – four seven-minute periods of regulation play, plus a pair of three-minute overtime frames.
Following a two-hour respite, the Big Green was back at poolside, ready for a 3 pm clash with Brunswick. Having come up on the short end of the scoreboard in the first game, however, would appear to have given the Bruins a sizable time advantage for rest and recuperation, about three-and-one-half hours of down time compared to just a bit over two hours for the Green.
Having long memories might have helped rejuvenate Deerfield’s psyche for this showdown, however. The Big Green opened what would prove to be a 13-4 season against this very same Brunswick team back in mid September, and its debut was less than ideal as the Bruins deep sixed Deerfield, 10-6.
“We knew the only chance we’d have to win the consolation game was to get off to a fast start and never give Brunswick a chance to get into the game, and that’s just what we did … we jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead and never looked back,” said Deerfield sharpshooter Conor Sullivan, who, along with Stepan Severov (15), helped supply Deerfield with its early getaway by pumping in two goals each to build the four-goal first-period cushion.
“Considering the amount of time we’d already spent in the pool that day, a fast start was critical for us if we hoped to have any chance of winning,” added Sullivan, who finished with four goals against Brunswick and posted three others against Exeter to finish with seven goals on the day and earn a spot on the All-Tournament Team.
Revenge came into play during Deerfield’s tourney opener as well. Unfortunately, the motivating tactic was used against the Big Green this time, as it was Exeter seeking some payback. Just three weeks prior to their tourney clash, Deerfield had taken the Big Red through a pair of overtime periods before logging a 9-8 victory.
“It was probably our most exciting game of the season,” said Scandling, whose teams have chalked up a 109-33 record over the past seven years, “ it was both exhilarating and exhausting for the players as well as the fans.”
“Our kids really deserved a lot of credit in coming back in that one,” added the Deerfield skipper. “We overcame an early 4-1 deficit, then we allowed two late goals that caused the game to continue … one coming with just six seconds remaining in regulation play that tied the game and sent it into overtime.”
“We knew the rematch against Exeter was going to be a real challenge and our toughest game of the season,” said Sullivan, who led the Big Green in scoring this season with 44 goals, despite playing the last two weeks with a torn ligament in his thumb sustained during a game of dodge ball. “That first game against Exeter could have gone either way,” added Sullivan, whose injury fortunately affected his non-shooting hand, “so we knew going into that semifinal game that Exeter figured it had a score to settle.
“I’m really proud of all these guys,” added Sullivan, who found himself in the same situation last year after he and his teammates dropped their semifinal round game to Choate, 11-4. “We wound up in the consolation game last year, but unlike this year, we weren’t able to rebound and ended up losing to Brunswick (9-7).”
While Sullivan, who received the Coach’s Award as the team’s MVP and who will serve as co-captain next fall with Hugo Marsans (15), has led the Big Green in scoring the past two years with 109 goals during that span, he’s far from the only marksman Scandling has been able to call upon.
“We’ve been blessed with a well-balanced offense over the last couple of years,” said Scandling, whose players have netted 381 goals – including 193 this fall – during the past two years, “and that’s been crucial to our success.
“This season, we had four players with 40 or more goals and to me it’s the perfect offense,” added Scandling. “It creates a lot of problems for the opposition. If you have one, or possibly two big scorers, it’s not that difficult to double-team them. When you have four players who can score consistently, it’s impossible to cover them all.”
Also chipping in to help give Deerfield a whopping average margin of victory of more than seven goals a game were Severov, with 42 goals, as well as Marsans, with 41, and Quinn Smith, with 40.
Down at the other end of the rink, goaltender Francesco Franzinetti (14) was adding insult to injury for the vast majority of Deerfield’s opponents this season. He finished the campaign with a stingy average of just over six goals per game and allowed only Brunswick (twice) to reach double figures.