The University of Wisconsin men’s club water polo team wrapped up their fall season two weekends ago in Ann Arbor after placing third in the Big Ten Tournament. But since water polo isn’t an especially common sport in the Badger State, many students haven’t yet heard of the team.
Brian Portland, a wing player for the water polo team, agreed that there can be a dearth of knowledge surrounding the sport.
“I’ve had so many people ask me, ‘What is water polo, how would you describe it?’ And I say picture team handball in the water and that’s kind of what water polo is but a little more physical,” Portland said.
The fall water polo season is typically when the Wisconsin team plays their most high intensity games and tournaments, traveling across the Midwest to compete. Before playing in their final game at the University of Michigan, the Badgers traveled to Purdue and Iowa’s campuses for both of their regular season tournaments to determine seeding for the conference bracket.
Usually Wisconsin would host their own tournament as well, but with last year’s Southeast Recreational Facility demolition, the Badgers will have to wait until the Nicholas Recreation Center opens in 2019. Though the team currently practices in the UW Natatorium, the pool is too shallow on its sides for water polo competitions, making Wisconsin the only school in the Big Ten without a regulation water polo pool.
“I’m definitely looking forward to [The Nick opening] for the team,” Portland said. “I think it’ll allow us to have better practice and get more used to playing in a regulation size pool as opposed to kind of getting cramped in the Nat.”
Portland is especially excited to see Wisconsin start hosting water polo tournaments as they haven’t played in a home tournament since 2016.
With away tournaments usually being at least a several-hour drive from Madison, it can often be difficult for those not on the team to make the trip.
“It’s always a different experience playing in front of your friends and family at a home tournament compared to away in front of a bunch of strangers,” Portland said. “I think it’ll be really cool to be able to host tournaments and have the Big Ten in our house rather than going away to them.”
Wisconsin, like most Midwestern schools, lacks a varsity level for water polo — making the club team the school’s most competitive option for students looking to play.
Despite their non-varsity categorization, Portland contended that many of his teammates have the skills to compete in Division I programs.
“I would say a lot of the guys on the team came to go to school first and then wanted to keep playing water polo,” Portland said. “Definitely there’s a lot of them that could have made it playing around the country DI.”
The most skilled player on the team and perhaps in all of the Big Ten is Will Derdeyn. In the Iowa tournament preceding the Big Ten Tournament, Derdeyn led the Badgers in goals with 11, assists with eight and steals with nine. Derdeyn was also incredibly efficient even with this high volume, recording just five missed shots and two turnovers on the weekend.
Other notable scoring performances in Iowa came from Austin Erben who had eight goals, David Komjathy with seven and Steve Leserman with six. Erben and Komjathy are both new to the team with Erben transferring and Komjathy entering as a freshman. Portland also showcased his unmatched speed in the opening period swim-offs, of which he won ten of eleven.
The Badgers split their four games in Iowa to earn the five seed in the Big Ten Tournament, though they lost their two most challenging contests versus Michigan State and Indiana.
While statistics haven’t been published for the Big Ten Tournament, Wisconsin performed well. In the first round, the Badgers defeated Illinois 7–4 before falling 15–8 in their rematch against No. 1 seed Michigan State. Wisconsin ended the day with a hard fought 11–8 win against Purdue, giving them a third place finish behind tournament winner Michigan and runner up Michigan State.
Portland credited the Badgers early scoring surge against the Boilermakers as a key factor in the victory.
“What we really focused on [in the match against Purdue] was getting out early,” Portland said. “We focused up before the game and wanted to come in with intensity and get out to an early lead. In that game we did a really good job of that and we came out strong.”
At the same time, Portland felt the team succeeded in the tournament as a whole by focusing on defense primarily and countering with their attack afterwards.
Though their season is over, the club water polo team continues to practice regularly. The team is currently considering joining the Big 12 to compete in the spring while remaining in the Big Ten for the fall season.
For more information regarding scheduling, match scores, statistics or any live streams of games feel free to consult the water polo team’s official Facebook page.