A rollicking overflow crowd packed the stands and rows of extra folding chairs at Haldeman Pool on Sunday for a Sixth Street Rivalry game like no other.
It was No. 1-ranked Pomona-Pitzer against No. 2 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps for the USA Water Polo Men’s Division III National Championship, and it delivered everything anyone could have expected.
The nip-and-tuck, suspense-filled game went to overtime before Pomona-Pitzer’s Ben Sasaki ’22 scored the winning goal with 2:33 left in the second three-minute extra period to give the Sagehens a 13-12 victory and the Div. III title. The championship set off a splashing celebration that drew some of the students in the stands into the pool too.
The game-winner was Sasaki’s fourth goal of the game after he scored a hat trick in regulation.
“I don’t think it’s about wanting the moment,” he says of his clutch shot. “It’s just that we’ve all practiced really hard for when that moment comes for whoever it is. This time it was me. ... We all worked really hard so that whoever it was in that moment could take a shot and put it away.”
It still wasn’t over, as CMS desperately tried to come back, hitting both goal posts on one shot before finally being thwarted by goalkeeper Kellan Grant ’21 with one of his 17 saves—some of them spectacular—as time began to tick down.
“I give a lot of credit to CMS,” says Sagehens Coach Alex Rodriguez. “They deserved to win the game. I’m just glad my guys did win it.”
The water polo national championship isn’t an NCAA title because college sports’ governing body sponsors only a single-division title in water polo, meaning that the qualifying teams from Div. III used to end up opening-round losers to Div. I powerhouses. But in 2019, USA Water Polo stepped in to sponsor a Div. III title in an effort to provide meaningful postseason competition and in hopes of increasing the number of colleges that field water polo teams.
Five 'Super Seniors'
The title was especially sweet for the five Pomona-Pitzer ‘super seniors’— Keegan Coleman PZ ’21, leading scorer Dylan Elliott ’21, goalkeeper Grant, Adam Gross PZ ’21 and Noah Sasaki ’21—who came back for a fifth season after the pandemic canceled last season. They’ll graduate in December, a semester behind their original class.
“Very, very worth it,” Noah Sasaki says with a grin. “Worth every single second.”
Elliott, another of the super seniors, was held to one goal in the title game with heavy attention from CMS defenders but he scored eight goals in the semifinal win over MIT—and he found Ben Sasaki open in the middle with a pass for the winning goal in the title game.
His performance earned him the tournament Most Valuable Player award, but one could argue he wasn’t the only one who deserved the initials MVP. How about Most Valuable Parents Jennifer and Russell Sasaki, whose three sons combined to score nine of the Sagehens’ 13 goals? In addition to Ben’s four goals, his twin brother Sam added a hat trick and older brother Noah scored twice.
“They’ve been doing that for three years now, since they’ve all been together. Noah’s been doing it for four years.” Elliott says. “I mean, when you're in a pinch, I think if there’s one thing you can always rely on it’s the way that they work together. But to be honest, they’ve also integrated the way they work together into our team. And they are all three great players. Just about anybody on this team I would trust to take a last-minute shot, but Ben making that one in the second overtime just shows the level of composure and control he has.”
'We Never Let Up'
Through much of the game, CMS kept taking one-goal leads before Pomona-Pitzer answered back. But the Stags jumped to a three-goal lead in the third quarter and it began to look as if they had taken control. But Pomona-Pitzer came back, taking its first lead of the game, 12-11, with 4:45 to play in the fourth quarter before CMS scored just 12 seconds later to force overtime.
“We never let up,” Rodriguez says.
Nor did the fans of the Stags, who finished with a 17-12 record and were led by Christian Pang's four goals, or those of the Sagehens, whose final record is 27-8.
“I grew up in Claremont, so it was really special for me being around the two schools my entire life,” says Grant, the Sagehen goalie. “I practiced here for club, and I would never imagine having that many people on the pool deck. We were really excited to be playing CMS and to have that rivalry going, because we knew it was going to be fun ... Having the type of crowd like that? It’s a lot of fun.”