Water Polo Wins Second Straight Championship, Falls in NCAA’s

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The Rams dominance continues with back-to-back championships. (Courtesy of Fordham Athletics)

Lou Orlando, Staff Writer

“The goal is to win a conference championship.” That’s something Fordham Water Polo head coach Brian Bacharach said before the season. It’s become a mission statement for a Fordham team loaded with talent and coming off a championship just last season. Prior to last year, the Rams had never reached the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC) finals. Now, the program boasts back-to-back MAWPC championships.

Fordham entered the MAWPC Championship as the #1 seed, boasting an undefeated record in-conference. Still, with tournament play spanning Nov. 18-20 with three games in as many days, the path to the finals was no cakewalk.

Fordham’s playoff run began with a quarterfinals matchup against McKendree University. With McKendree having already played earlier in the day, the Rams came out the gates strong and held a 7-2 lead by the end of the first quarter. They would never relinquish the lead, as hat tricks from graduate student Nir Gross, sophomore Lucas Nieto Jasny and junior Christos Loupakis secured the Rams’ 15-6 win in their inaugural playoff matchup.

It was much of the same on Saturday night as the Rams cruised to a semifinals win over Salem University. Once again taking a 7-2 lead by the end of the first quarter, Fordham’s offense continued to roll, culminating in a 19-8 win. This time, four players netted hat tricks as sophomore Jacopo Parrella and freshman Balazs Berenyi joined Gross and Jasny, who also added three assists in his six point effort.
For the second straight year, Fordham had reached the finals. The only thing in their way was a red hot Bucknell University team, coming off a win against an excellent Naval Academy team and an upset win over the #2 seed George Washington University. Facing an early deficit, sophomore George Papanikolaou scored three times in the first quarter, giving Fordham a 3-2 lead. The Rams scored the first three goals of the second quarter as well behind markers from Parrella, Nieto Jasny and sophomore Luca Silvestri. Trailing 7-4 after one half of play, Bucknell scored the first three goals of the third quarter, reducing the Fordham lead to just one.

Back-to-back goals scored from Loupakis and senior Jason Hiremath left the Rams with a three goal lead heading into the final quarter of play. A Thomas Lercari save on a Bucknell penalty shot was the final dagger as the sophomore’s fantastic stop drew a deafening uproar from the home crowd and ignited the Rams, who outscored Bucknell 5-1 in the final frame to seal the championship.

Needless to say, Bacahrach loved what he saw, saying, “I think we withstood a lot of adversity.” Despite numerous ejections from some questionable officiating, Fordham stood strong on the biggest of stages. “They never wavered for a second on Sunday. It was fun to be a part of.”
For the first time in program history, Fordham celebrated a water polo championship in front of their home fans. Highlights of the celebration included members of the coaching and training staff jumping into the pool as a packed out Francis B. Messmore Aquatic Center echoed with applause. “Every time I think about it, I still get a smile on my face,” said Bacharach, reminiscing about the win just days later. “I know the guys appreciate it. That’s a memory you don’t forget.”

It’s been a long road leading up to this. “I remember vividly my first years at Fordham and how hard we fought just to get to this point.” Fordham had fallen in the semifinals of the MAWPC championship four consecutive years prior to their first finals appearance in 2021. “The ability to get to win conference championships is not something you get to do every day. It took Fordham a long time to get to this point. You certainly don’t take it for granted.”

Gross was named MVP of the MAWPC Championship, on top of his MAWPC regular season MVP. The 2021 Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) Player of the Year transferred to Fordham after three seasons at UC Davis, and made an immediate impact. Gross posted six goals, two steals and drew six ejections through three tournament games. “It’s sometimes subtle what he’s doing and what he’s causing,” noted Bacharach. “The respect he commands from multiple people on defense, that’s what opens up an outside shooter. I’m not sure we’ve ever had anyone who can open up the outside quite like Nir does.”

Gross was far from the only impact player in the tournament. Parrella and Papanikolaou both posted four goals in the championship game and Papanikolaou led Fordham with 14 points in the tournament. Highlighted by his 14 saves in the championship game, Lercari’s tournament play gives him the second most saves in a single season in program history.

With the season coming to a close, Lercari falls just 12 saves short of Bailey O’Mara’s 351, set in 2019. “I think that speaks to the season he’s had and probably a little quietly,” said Bacharach, who has spoken highly of the sophomore’s play throughout the season. “He has worked so hard to get to this point. I really am proud of Thomas.”

Fordham’s championship earned them an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament and a rematch with Princeton. Ranked #8 in the nation by the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) polls, the Tigers were the best team on the east coast according to the national rankings.

Furthermore, Princeton held the upper hand in recent matchups, defeating Fordham last year in the opening round of NCAAs and mounting a five goal comeback earlier this season to defeat the Rams by one.

Fordham battled with Princeton University in a thrilling back and forth game. Princeton held a slim lead for most of the game, taking a 9-8 lead into the fourth quarter. The Rams’ defense stepped up when it mattered most, holding the Tigers scoreless for the entirety of the quarter. With the score still 9-8, Papanikolaou found Silvestri for the game-tier with 23 seconds left. The squads entered overtime, where the Tigers jumped ahead first, grabbing a 10-9 lead in the first overtime period. The Rams bounced back in the second three-minute overtime period, with Papanikolaou netting one early to tie things at 10. Each side had a chance to take the lead in the final minute, but after a missed shot by Fordham, it was Princeton who held it for the final possession. Drawing an exclusion, Princeton took advantage of the one-man advantage as Roko Pazaric netted the game winner with three seconds left.

It was a heartbreaking loss for a Fordham team that took one of the best teams in the nation into overtime. Still, after losing by nine goals last year in the very same NCAA round, the Rams are moving in the right direction.

Fordham finishes the season with a 26-8 record. Despite quite a slow start, the Rams had one of the best stretches in program history, winning a program-best 15 straight games towards the end of the regular season. Including tournament play, the Rams were an undefeated 19-0 in conference play, establishing themselves once again as the most dominant team in the MAWPC.

Parrella led the team with 80 goals while Papanikolaou led with 146 points and 90 assists, all career highs. Lercari posted 339 saves, second most all time, and a 9.87 GAA. This year also marks the final season for the following players Gross, Curtis Vidinoff, Hiremath, Daniel Lynch and Paul Pittion.

As they continue to win, pressure on Fordham will only increase. It will be difficult to repeat that success for a third straight year, particularly with MAWPC MVP Gross departing, but Fordham’s young and ever-improving core as well as a stable coaching staff led by back-to-back Coach of the Year winner Bacharach will ensure that they remain one of the best teams in the MAWPC.

But let’s just table all that for next year. Back-to-back championships don’t come around very often. It’s time for Fordham to enjoy their moment.