With one sweeping motion, Penn’s club water polo team is poised for greatness.
In the club finals of the Ivy League Men’s Water Polo Championships, Penn’s Daniele De Vecchis made the only move he could. With his back turned to goal and Dartmouth’s Fanis Tigkas grabbing, kicking and doing all he could, the freshman from Rome flung the ball towards goal without even looking.
The ball whirred past the Dartmouth keeper and the roughly 60 Penn fans at Sherr Pool shouted in support. Coach Antonio Merlo pumped both fists in the air and urged the crowd to cheer louder as the team finished off the Big Green, 10-9, and cemented its position as the best club team in the Ivy League.
“They’re scared,” De Vecchis said. “[When they] marked me, they give me attention, it gets me excited.”
Although Penn lost its semifinals matchup and third-place matchup to the Princeton and Harvard varsity teams the next day, an Ivy Club Championship and a strong performance against varsity teams has whetted the team’s appetite for winning and challenging the best.
For a team that hasn’t captured the Mid-Atlantic Division Championship since 2010, a title and a spot at Nationals is in sight.
“I think in every sport winning helps winning,” Merlo said. “The more you win, the more you are prepared to win.
“I think that it was huge for us to go into the Division Championship having won something important … it just completely changes the motivation … and the whole mentality approaching games knowing that you can win,” he added.
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The Red and Blue’s success can be traced to the dedication of coach Antonio Merlo.
Gregarious, articulate, passionate and intense, Merlo honed his skill in Italy, where he played in the national league for many years. After teaching and coaching stints at Minnesota and New York University, he moved to Penn in 2000, where he eventually was named the Lawrence R. Klein Professor and Chair of the Economics Department, helping out with the water polo program when he could.
When he took over the head coaching position in 2008, the team, while successful, was still unable to make the jump to the next level.
However, things began to change in 2010, when current senior Carles Alonso and a high school teammate spoke with Merlo about playing competitively at Penn.
“To give you an idea, Carles is the first ‘recruit,’” Merlo said. “He [was] the first person to come to my office four years ago. He together with a classmate of his from his high school were like, we want to be serious about water polo, and what are our chances at Penn, and we started this conversation.”
The idea of playing competitively at a great school has helped Merlo lure players from water polo hotbeds across the United States and the world. Penn currently boasts players from California, Texas, Florida, Spain, Italy and Singapore on its roster, and now nearly four years later, he is talking to 10 prospective players.
In addition, the coach has done his best to attract the attention of graduate students, including current goalkeeper Michael Shashoua, a four-year backup and four-time NCAA champion at Southern California.
“I had no idea what it would be like and there is huge variance in levels of clubs here,” Shashoua said. “This program is very unique. Everyone is very seasoned. We have a lot of experienced players and that makes it enjoyable. It’s not just me teaching people, I’m learning a lot.”
With its talent and depth, Penn has been able to play solid defense and interchange its positions on offense. Both Alonso and De Vecchis can play in front of goal as hole set, and a deep rotation has allowed the Quakers to impose their style of play.
“We have a great goalkeeper,” sophomore winger Brandon Chong said. “Everything builds on that. We have a good goalie and can play defense, and with a good defense we have the confidence to attack.”
During Merlo’s tenure, the Quakers’ reputation has grown steadily, but they are still treated as a club team. Even this year, Merlo asked to participate in varsity tournaments at Brown and Navy but was rebuffed.
“Having established a reputation as a very serious club program is very important,” Merlo said. “Water polo is a niche sport. It is a small, tight community, and if people respect each other, they’re going to give people a chance.”
So he asked Princeton coach Luis Nicolao for a spot at a varsity-only tournament just two weeks after the season began.
“He said, ‘By all means, come down and we’ll have you play,’ and he said, ‘I’ll let you play a game,’” Merlo recounted. “I said, ‘No, no, we were hoping for four games like every other team, like the big boys.’ He said, ‘Fine, we’ll give you four.’
“And after the tournament, I said, ‘Luis, I hope that we can make this a regular occurrence,’ and he said, ‘Are you kidding me? The way you guys played, you’re welcome to come next year.’”
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The season-opening tournament at Princeton on Sept. 14-15, according to Merlo, set the stage for the season in that it helped expose the Quakers to stronger, faster and bigger opponents as well as test out the team’s strengths. However, something even more important happened.
“This year especially, it is a lot of people coming in because they were new or abroad, but everyone has come together as friends on the team,” senior Travis Bailey said.
“The tournament at Princeton … was such a tough tournament barely two weeks into the season. If we didn’t have that cohesion … we would have gotten crushed,” Alonso said.
While Merlo admits this year’s players are the most talented he has seen, the unity at squad barbecues, dinners and practices have turned this group into a team.
“I believe that if you have chemistry out of the water, you can form chemistry in the water, and that’s why we are playing so well together,” Chong added.
As a result, the Quakers have adopted Merlo’s mentality that they can compete with the best. So far, that attitude has carried them to a perfect 9-0 record in the Mid-Atlantic Division and a No. 1 seed in the Eastern Division at this weekend’s tournament at Villanova.
“This season is great,” Merlo concluded. “The kids are fantastic, they work hard and are very close to each other.
“The team has just bonded, and we have high expectations going into the Mid-Atlantic Division Championship and [for] going to Nationals in San Diego. And hopefully [we’ll] break the top four [at Nationals], which is a dream the University of Pennsylvania has always had.”
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