They could have graduated last spring. But one by one, five players from the Class of ’21 on Pomona-Pitzer’s men’s water polo team decided to come back for more.
Now the No. 1-ranked Sagehens will compete for the USA Water Polo Division III Collegiate Water Polo National Championship this weekend in a four-team tournament at Haldeman Pool on the Pomona College campus.
“I think I might have been the first one that made the actual decision to come back and kind of mentioned it to everyone,” says Kellan Grant ’21, the Sagehens’ first-team All-SCIAC goalkeeper. “Everyone was a little bit unsure at first and then it just naturally kind of trickled down. Maybe by early November of 2020, we all were messaging each other: ‘I guess we’re all coming back.’”
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out all sports at The Claremont Colleges for the 2020-21 academic year as students studied away from campus. But through gap semesters, part-time status and an NCAA provision that allowed athletes an extra season to compete, every senior except one decided to return to campus for a final season on the men’s water polo team.
“I think all of us had a desire to,” says Dylan Elliott ’21, who went on to lead the team with 77 goals and become the SCIAC offensive player of the year for a team that swept the regular season and tournament titles without a conference loss. “Once we realized that we all had a shared desire, it made the decision a lot easier. If it was just a couple of guys, it would have been a little bit different for sure.”
Adam Gross PZ ’21 and Keegan Coleman PZ ’21 made up their minds to return too, and Noah Sasaki ’21 had the same reasons as the others plus two more. His twin brothers Sam and Ben are juniors on the team.
“At this point, I’ve played with them for like eight years,” Sasaki says, thinking back to their high school careers as well as college. "They've been there for a big chunk of my career and obviously we're really close. So it's just one thing that definitely has had a big impact on wanting to get that last season.”
Perhaps nothing drives them more than a chance to go out as winners. Before 2019, there was only a single-division postseason tournament for all NCAA water polo teams. What that meant was that the best teams in Division III ended up in a field with Division I powers like USC and UCLA, which inevitably meant an opening-round loss.
But in 2019, USA Water Polo stepped in to sponsor a championship with Division III programs in both an effort to provide meaningful postseason competition and in hopes of increasing the number of Division III schools that sponsor the sport. It’s not an NCAA title, but it serves to decide the best of the best in D-III in a four-team tournament that pits the top two teams from the SCIAC tournament, representing the West, against the top two Collegiate Water Polo Association teams from the East.
But instead of finally getting to play for a national title in 2019, the Sagehens were upset by CMS in the SCIAC tournament semifinals after leading by five at halftime and were left out of the championship field. Conference-rival Whittier went on to claim the first D-III title.
“I think a lot of us just didn’t want to leave on the note we left on last time,” says Sasaki, who was chosen the most valuable player of the 2021 SCIAC tournament after scoring a hat trick in the final over CMS. “I think 2019 was really heartbreaking for us. And so we didn’t want to let go without getting the chance to have a season to redeem what happened then.”
Once they had decided to step back from academics for part of last year, many of the players made good use of the extra time. Grant continued a yearlong internship in high school ministry at the Purpose Church in Pomona, preaching sermons and mentoring a group of teenage boys. Sasaki went to Croatia with his brother Ben, traveling together and training in one of the most competitive water polo regions in the world.
Elliott went to work as a Congressional intern in the office of California Democrat Ted Lieu, starting remotely from California only days after the January 6 attack on the Capitol. As Lieu took on a role as one of the House managers in the second impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, Elliott responded to calls and emails to the congressman’s office and took part in two conference calls with Lieu. Last summer, Elliott moved on to a role in the office of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and after graduating in December he plans to move to Washington.
“I had applied to Congressman Lieu’s office before, did not get the internship, and then applied for the spring and got it,” Elliott recalls. “Honestly, had I not taken that time off, I wouldn’t have gotten the Congressional stuff and now that’s probably where I’ll end up come January. I’m going to be applying to a lot of jobs on the Hill, probably either working for a member office or a committee, potentially even in an election campaign given it’s an election year. So it’s funny how that worked out.”
Grant is applying to law schools and plans to become a sports agent. Sasaki is considering graduate school in broadcast journalism and wants to work in sports as well.
The final hope of the five fifth-year ‘super seniors’ as their last days as students tick away is that they will win a national title this weekend at Haldeman Pool.
The top-ranked Sagehens play No. 8 MIT at noon Saturday in one semifinal, followed by No. 2 CMS against No. 5 Johns Hopkins in the second semifinal at 2 p.m. The winners meet for the Div. III championship Sunday at 1 p.m. in what could be a Sixth Street Rivalry game for the national title.
“We're all very, very grateful that should things shake out the way they appear now, we will get to play our last collegiate game in this pool, in front of our crowd that we've played in front of for this many years, for a national championship against the team across the street,” Elliott says. “I think what happened in 2019 was a very big disruption for a lot of us. We did not expect that. And I don't think any of us were prepared for that to be it.”