Treading Water and Making Waves

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Penn’s club-level women’s water polo team may be creating big waves on the East Coast, but when members of the squad walked into the Riverpark Inn in Tuscon, Arizona, one day this past April, they didn’t even cause a tiny ripple.

Hardly anyone from the other competing teams in the Women’s National Collegiate Club Championship at the University of Arizona even looked up from their breakfast to acknowledge the young women from Pennsylvania. And the ones who did said things like, “Wow, I can’t believe your team made it here,” or, “You guys are pretty good for an East Coast team.” 

By now, those kinds of snippy comments shouldn’t hold water—not after Penn qualified for its fifth straight national tournament, bringing a 56-game conference winning streak along for the trip. 

“I think we’re not taken as seriously as we should be,” said Winnie Eastwood, a hard-throwing rising senior and the co-captain of next year’s squad. 

“A lot of times going to nationals we feel like the perennial underdog,” added Elizabeth Lawrence W’10, captain and goalie. “We’re the scrappy team from Penn that’s half the size of other teams.” 

Yet Penn has shown it has one of the best club water polo teams in the country by dismantling teams from its region and crashing the national tournament party—which has long been ruled by West Coast teams—year after year. This season, the Quakers booked their place at nationals after trouncing Pittsburgh, Richmond, and Penn State in the Mid-Atlantic Division Championship before placing seventh at the national tourney—a strong showing for a team that truly has the odds stacked against them. 

Western squads like California Polytechnic State University (which has won three straight national titles), UC-Santa Cruz (whose club team played as varsity up until last season), and UCLA (which picks off leftovers from the school’s varsity squad) have deeper and more experienced lineups than any team from the East Coast. Some players from Penn had never even played water polo before coming to college.  

“Here, water polo hasn’t been around as long, so it’s not as established,” said Eastwood, who like many of her teammates, learned the sport growing up in California. “Our starters can hold their own, but where we have a problem is the depth of our team.” 

Penn’s team leaders also have the unique responsibility of planning their own travel, paying dues, and finding players to complete the roster. That last part is especially difficult because the sport—which, according to Lawrence, combines aspects of soccer, basketball, rugby, wrestling, and swimming—is exhausting and time-consuming. 

“My friends sometimes joke about trying to take it up,” Lawrence said. “And I ask, ‘Do you tread water for an hour?’ We do.” 

And yet Penn has found a way to consistently draw in top-notch talent. Deidre Sandrock Gr’10, who played varsity water polo as an undergrad at Washington & Jefferson, thought her athletic career was over when she came to Penn to get a PhD in chemistry. A half-decade later, she can look back and say she was part of all five teams that went to nationals—four as a player and this last one as the coach. 

“I would arguably say the level of play and raw talent is higher here [than at Washington & Jefferson, which competes in Division III],” Sandrock said. “What I find fascinating is that varsity teams have to recruit players to come in, and somehow a club team like Penn perpetually has this amazing ability to find players who keep funneling into the program.” 

With that kind of talent funneling through, the club team’s goal is to keep its East Coast winning streak alive while trying to snatch a national championship away from the pompous powers of the West Coast. And if that happens, you can be sure everyone will remember Penn’s name. 

—Dave Zeitlin C’03

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