2018 has already seen its fair share of underdog performances, and now Penn has its own Cinderella story to celebrate in men's club water polo.
The Quakers finished their first spring season in the Main Line League with an unprecedented 8-0 record, capping their perfect season by securing the league title. This championship campaign comes just months after the Red and Blue tallied only three wins in the Mid-Atlantic Division of the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA).
Still, the Main Line League posed a new set of challenges for Penn because it allows for graduate students to participate in games. As a result, the Quakers weren’t expecting to gain much more than experience.
"Expectations were low at the start because we didn’t play well in the fall, but our first couple games in the season went really well, so we just wanted to ride the momentum for as long as possible," sophomore goalie and team president Noah Werksman said.
Penn kick-started the year by taking down Lehigh 22-1 in its first match of the season. From there, the Quakers didn't look back, as they would go on to win each of their next five regular season games, cementing themselves as prime championship contenders.
"We felt that we were playing much better water polo than we had been in the fall and our playing styles began to mesh really well in the spring," junior Richard Stack said. "You could feel it in the water that everyone was on the same page and we all had a feeling that this season was going to be different for us."
Penn finished just as strong as it started, opening the Championships with a 19-3 victory over West Chester in the first round. Following the one-sided affair, the Quakers took on a skilled and more experienced Franklins team loaded with graduate students in a game for all the marbles.
The Quakers raced out to an early lead and held a 7-3 advantage late in the game. Still, Franklins fought back eventually, evening the score at 9-9 with less than a minute remaining.
However, the Red and Blue had one last push in them, scoring the deciding goal with less than ten seconds left to secure the 10-9 victory and the title.
"It’s completely different playing against graduate students because their level of experience is so much higher," Stack said. "It made for a very difficult championship game and one of the toughest I've played in my three years at Penn."
The team's depth played a significant role in its success throughout the season, as the Quakers consistently rotated 15 players into each match.
"Water polo is exhausting, by all means, so it was very important for us to make quick substitutions as to keep players fresh and really set the pace," Werksman said.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of this championship run is that the team did accomplished all this without a coach. The players were responsible for conducting practices on their own and holding one another accountable for staying fit throughout the season.
"We had great chemistry throughout the season, and everyone was really on the same wavelength throughout the spring season," junior Ben Grau said. "I'm glad our hard work and dedication ultimately paid off in the end."
Penn now looks to retain its momentum for the upcoming fall season, with the players sights set on one team in particular: Penn State. The Nittany Lions are a perennial threat year in and year out, and it most recently went undefeated on its way to another Mid-Atlantic Division title last fall.
The Red and Blue are confident that they have what it takes to top Penn State this time around.
"I think the guys are determined enough so we'll be willing to put in that extra time to be a more prepared team for this upcoming fall season," Stack said. "Every one of us knows that Penn State is the team to beat because we've fallen just short against them so many times in the past."
Excitement has spread throughout the program as the team looks to keep the momentum going and eventually accomplish its goal of rising to the varsity level.
"For the first time in my career with the club, we are looking at a genuine shot at the title and moving on to nationals," Stack said.
This may just be the beginning for a team with the work ethic and talent to contend.