The University of Florida men’s water polo club team made school history at the 2023 CWPA Men’s National Collegiate Club Championship by securing second place earlier this month.
The team traveled to Salt Lake City on Nov. 9 to compete at the three-day tournament hosted by the University of Utah at the Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center’s 50 meter pool.
The last time the men’s team was anywhere near this season’s success was in 2011, when the team placed third at Nationals.
Building the Team
The 2023-2024 season welcomed back many familiar faces to the team and a few new members. From the 19 players on this season’s roster, six were new additions: five freshman and one graduate student from Italy.
As practices began in late August, the team was also in need of a new coach.
Lucas Weaver, a UF grad and former player, stepped up to the role.
Weaver played on the UF men’s club team from 2018-2022 and served as the team’s president during the 2022-23 season. Having played alongside most of the team, Weaver was trusted by players, such as senior Antonio Alves De Souza.
Quality over Quantity
In past years, the men’s team would be divided in an A and B team. This year, the executive board decided to cut the B team to create one team.
“Instead of having two OK teams, we now had one really good team where we can actually develop the younger guys and give them a place where they can work with the older players,” president Logan Mazor said.
Practices were set up for an hour and a half at the Florida Pool on Sunday, Monday and Friday.
Each practice began with 30 minutes of warmup, followed by scrimmaging with conditioning elements. The team would extend the pool to 28-30m for scrimmages, which is longer than the standard 25m, to build endurance for more competitive games. Training ended with practicing man-up situations for 15-20 minutes.
Two hour-long optional scrimmages were also offered to players on Tuesdays and Thursdays by the Gainesville Masters Water Polo from 7-8 p.m. at the Northeast Pool for a $3 entry fee.
Outside of practice, players were encouraged to swim once or twice a week to strengthen conditioning.
Splashing into the Season
As the first tournament neared, players started to realize that this team was different than past years.
“This is the first season where I felt we had explicit goals, like getting top five at Nationals. In other seasons, its been more that we need to focus on doing well at nationals once we get there,” point and PhD student Clancy Short said.
The first tournament of the season was at the Florida Pool. The Gators went 4-0, beating UCF 13-7, USF 19-9, FAU 14-5 and state rival FSU 19-12.
The Gators improved to 8-0 in their second tourney, the CWPA Florida Division Tournament, hosted by UCF, beating USF, FSU, FIU and UM in a forfeit.
The team traveled to FSU on Oct. 28 to compete in the CWPA Florida Division Regionals.
The Gators faced the Seminoles for the regional final. This was the third time these teams met this season, with the Gators winning 2-0.
“You could feel how it is more than just a game,” goalie Adriano Zunino said.
The Gators claimed the title of 2023 CWPA Florida Division Champions by beating the Seminoles, 15-5.
“Regionals was a confirmation that our team was at a different level, and that we had serious chances of making history at nationals,” Zunino said.
After regionals, the team had two weeks to prepare for nationals. The Gators extended the length of the pool to about 30 meters and amped up their practice by nailing down game plays, extra sets of conditioning and individual training.
Some players went as far as showing up during the women’s practices to work out plays.
“We had a lot of guys where it would be their last season and you could tell the team was very motivated,” Weaver said.
Going into nationals, the Gators were ranked No. 10. As an east coast team, they were automatically judged as inferior to any west coast team.
West coast and mid-west schools are predominately known to heavily fund water polo programs and in the CWPA and have claimed the championship every season for the past 20 years.
A cold welcome
Salt Lake City greeted the Gators with lows of 40°F and altitude sickness. Players suffered shortness of breath, asthma attacks and nose bleeds because of the high altitude and lower oxygen levels.
The pool conditions were also a factor in the Gators’ health issues, as the chlorine levels were so high, chemicals reduced the air quality for the players, according to a player.
A climb to top eight
The Gators went up against the No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions for game one of the tournament.
“We were underdogs from the start,” freshman Nicholas Borden said.
The Gators went on to win the game 16-9 to improve their ranking to No. 6.
Coast vs. Coast
The team proceeded to face No. 2 UCLA in the quarterfinals.
Florida never let go of the lead against UCLA in upsetting the three-time national champion Bruins 10-6. Graduate student Gabriele Bassani put away four shots and senior Luke Carey scored three goals to lead the team.
No. 6 University of Florida Stuns No. 2 University of California-Los Angeles, 10-6, to Make 2023 Men’s National Collegiate Club Championship Semifinalshttps://t.co/ALmjzjLm02 pic.twitter.com/lPB4IInXmV
— CWPA-Club (@CWPAClubs) November 11, 2023
Beating the Bruins accomplished the Gator’s goal of making the top five in the country.
“Beating UCLA was a huge moment for us,” Weaver said. “It demonstrated our ability to not only make it to the finals, but to win it all. Our belief in our ability to win the tournament was only theoretical until that point.”
The Gators advanced to the semifinals to take on the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans.
The Gators make UF history
The furthest any University of Florida men’s club water polo team has gone was in 2011 and 2001, when the Gators took home third place in the tournament. UF had never won a semifinal match at nationals.
By the second quarter of the game, the Gators held a 7-5 advantage over MSU, and managed to never give up the lead.
Bassani scored nine goals in the match, accounting for half of Florida’s offense. Carey accounted for four goals, while freshman Borden and Nicholas Santarsiero each scored twice.
With about 10 seconds left in the game, Nicholas Borden, 18, sealed the win for the Gators, 18-17.
Borden was defending, when he stole the ball from MSU to win the game.
“I remember guarding and seeing where I thought the pass was going to be made,” Borden said. “I started to creep behind the MSU player, hiding where he couldn’t see me, and as he got passed the ball, I managed to tip it and swim with it for the last five seconds the game.”
The win over Michigan State qualified the Gators for the Men’s National Collegiate Club Championship title game for the first time in UF history.
“It was the best water polo I’ve ever seen UF play,” Weaver said.
A Bittersweet Finale
The Gators’ undefeated season unfortunately came to end, as they fell 12-8 to the No.1 UC-San Diego Tritons in the final and claim second place.
“We had a great team with great culture. We all wanted to win,” senior Nathan Weaver said.
Along with Weaver, others players bidding a bittersweet farewell to Gator water polo are seniors Antonio Alves de Souza, Luke Carey and Eli Golde.
Master’s students Adriano Zunino and Gabriele Bassani, along with PhD candidate Clancy Short, dental student Tristan Hollon-Brooks and law student Tyler Conti, also indulge on their last season on the team.
As a way to remember the team’s historic feat, president Logan Mazor and treasurer Micah Bayle decided to allow the players to keep their caps.
“I was so insanely proud of my team,” Mazor said. “Everyone had just made history, so Micah and I decided to everyone deserved a minor gift.”
What to Expect in Spring 2024
During the offseason, the Gators continue their training as they await invitations from clubs across the country for spring invitationals.
The team has high hopes to get back in pool and participate in high level competition after their performance at nationals.