Girls Water Polo

By Bob York — 

A change of clothes has become as much a part of Mark Scandling’s preparation for postseason play as opening his mailbox to get the invitation.

There’s a long-standing tradition that the men and women whose teams occupy the prep school pool halls throughout New England are urged to continue whenever and wherever they gather for their respective championships. It’s an unwritten rule, but if it were to appear in print, the gist of it would be something like: “If you win – you must go in!”

Swim team coaches and water polo mentors live for those dives into the drink. It’s become a symbol of success … if your team finishes atop the medal stand, you must head for the bottom of the pool – clothes and all.

“The secret is hiding your change of clothes somewhere on the bus where the kids won’t find them,” said Scandling, the Big Green girls water polo coach. “You always pack an extra set just in case … but you don’t want to place any unnecessary pressure on the kids.  You don’t want the kids to find them and read into it that their coach is expecting them to win. They don’t need that … and you don’t need that, either.”

This spring, despite a number-one seed and an undefeated regular season in league play, Scandling still found a secret compartment on the bus to hide the incriminating evidence, “and you never use the same spot two years in a row,” he cautioned, and then managed to smuggle it into the locker room undetected where he could make the switch when needed – not, if needed.

And it didn’t take the veteran mentor long to realize he would be taking that plunge, either. His Deerfield girls chalked up a relentless day of defense, sinking Exeter, 7-1, in the semifinals, then sending Andover to the bottom in the final round by an 8-2 count to wrap up the 2013 New England Girls’ Water Polo Tournament crown.

This spring’s title gives Scandling the more “down time” of any prep school water polo coach in New England. It’s his sixth New England title in all and his fifth in the past seven years. His Big Green boys program claimed championships in 2007, ’08, ’10 and ’11, while the Big Green girls rang up their other title back in ’98. And let’s not forget some of the close calls Scandling’s had to joining the pool party. His girls have wound up second in three other tourneys: in 2003, ’10 and ’12.       

“The girls did great,” said Scandling, while he drip-dried during this year’s post-game presentations. And the Big Green mentor had plenty of time to dry off during what proved to be an extended awards show. After co-captains Lizzie Jeffrey (13) and Maddie McGraw (13) carted off the championship trophy, Averi Westerman (15) was summoned to the stage to accept her plaque as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Then, both Jeffrey and McGraw drew an encore presentation, along with Liza Bragg, to receive recognition for earning berths on the All-Tournament team. And for McGraw and Bragg, it marked the second consecutive year that they had both earned all-tourney laurels. 

“We were determined this year to finish off the job we nearly accomplished last year,” said Scandling, referring to the New England crown his girls saw slip away last spring to Andover by a 9-7 margin – in double overtime. “Losing in double overtime was tough enough,” added Scandling of his squad that entered last season’s tourney as the number-four seed, “but the fact that we came within 36 seconds of winning the title in regulation made it even harder to swallow.”

So, with that scenario still swirling around in their heads, “we wanted to make sure this year was our year,” said Scandling, who also praised his long-time assistant Deb Dohrmann, in helping turn a negative into a positive. “And that victory over Andover in the finals certainly gave us all some nice closure on the past.

Fortunately for Scandling, he had 10 seniors, plus Westerman, returning to this year’s roster, who had to settle for that second-place finish – and they didn’t like the feeling, either. And it’s amazing what you can do when you mix a bunch of experience with a little bit of revenge. It’s like tossing a match on a puddle of gasoline: POW!

That three-letter word would pretty much express the feelings of all 16 of Deerfield’s league opponents this spring as the Big Green sent every one of them swirling down the drain while chalking up a 16-4 overall record. Three of those setbacks came at the hands of Greenwich (Conn.) High School, the other against the Greenwich Y, “so we’ll have to make sure we stay out of Greenwich for a while,” quipped Scandling.

Westerman, who finished the season as the Big Green’s leading scorer with 70 points, earned her tourney MVP award in much the same manner, as she tallied 10 goals during the tourney doubleheader – five during the title tilt against Andover and another five against Exeter in the semifinal round.

“Losing the way we did in the finals to Andover last year was a real bummer,” said Westerman. “We all felt terrible after coming so close to winning the title, so we tried to turn the situation into a positive this season. We used it as a spark … we all worked our hardest, right from day one, to make sure we went all the way this year … that we didn’t end up just a little short of our goal and feel that awful feeling again.”

Bragg, who will be long remembered as one of the elite female swimmers to ever compete for the Big Green, having won 15 gold medals as a member of Deerfield swim team over the past four years, entered this spring’s graduation line just two weeks after chalking up the 16th and final golf medal of her Deerfield career. She wound up as the team’s second leading scorer with 54 points and was later named recipient of this year’s Coaches’ Award as the team’s Most Valuable player, “despite playing much more of a defensive role for us this season,” explained Scandling. During the tourney, Bragg accounted for four of those points, scoring a pair goals in the finals and two others in the semifinals. Jeffrey was the third leading scorer on the roster with 30 points on the season, chipping in a single tally to help topple Andover.

“The balanced scoring attack we had this season proved to be a big plus for us,” said Scandling. “We had the capability to score from just about anywhere in the pool and the opposition might have been able to key in on one player, but they couldn’t key in on everyone.”

Co-captains for next year’s team will be Juliette Lee (14) and Nahla Achi (15).