Seniors Savor Men's Water Polo Turnaround
Senior class has seen it all on GW's rise to NCAA Tournament
By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications
Not long ago, Pierce Deamer's top water polo goal was to win a game at Charles E. Smith Center Pool.
The GW center knew his team needed to be able to defend its home pool before it could start thinking bigger. The Colonials lost their first eight contests in Foggy Bottom over two seasons to start Deamer's collegiate career.
"That kind of took a toll," Deamer said. "It was just a little embarrassing."
GW's home doubleheader sweep of Wagner and Fordham on Sept. 24, 2016, snapped that skid and provided the first major breakthrough on what's been a remarkable rise.
After ascending the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference standings last fall, the Colonials took the next step last weekend by claiming their first conference title with three wins in as many days in Annapolis, Md. They're one of eight squads left in contention for a national title, heading into Saturday's NCAA debut at Harvard.
The turnaround has been particularly gratifying for Deamer, Duke Becker, Joe Behun and Noah McKinnie Braun. The four GW seniors had to push through the lows -- including a 1-15 conference record between 2014 and 2015 -- before they could help propel the program to new heights.
"It's been a pretty wild ride," Behun said.
Braun points to the 2015 finale as the unofficial beginning of the transformation. GW fell, 13-8, to Fordham in the 9th-place game at the CWPA Championship, capping an 8-22 season with a loss that was never particularly close.
"We knew we had a lot more talent in us than we had shown that year," Braun said. "We had been putting in the work. We just weren't getting the results yet, but we knew they were going to come."
The Colonials posted those long-awaited home wins, broke into the national rankings and started to feel like they were capable of a deep postseason run.
"The whole mindset of the team kind of changed," said Deamer, who is in his third season as a captain. "It was like `OK, we're training to win. Not just training to go out there and compete.'"
Becker modeled that attitude adjustment. Last year was the first time in his college career he didn't book a flight back to his native California for Thanksgiving break. He expected to win an MAWPC title and play on and was forced to scramble to book a last-minute trip home once the Colonials fell to Bucknell, 11-5, in the tournament championship.
This year, Becker held off setting his Thanksgiving plans again and was rewarded for his confidence. He'll spend the holiday with his teammates on the way to Harvard.
"It's pretty cool," Becker said. "Being that it's my last year, I just want to spend as much time with these guys as I can."
The road to the NCAA Tournament this season wasn't totally smooth.
GW had to figure out how to replace a four-time All-American in Petkovic and quickly get used to a new coach after Barry King was hired July 31. Before they'd played their first game, the Colonials lost all-conference goalie Matt Taylor for the season to a hip injury, too.
Luckily, King's job was made easier by a strong core of veterans eager to keep building.
"From the first day, you could see how their previous experience and their desire for success informed the way that they approached this season," King said.
It's been a good match. King challenged GW's top playmaker Destici to get his teammates more involved, and this squad has thrived on its newfound offensive balance.
Destici has set the program's single-season record with 75 assists, and he's among 10 Colonials with at least 11 goals.
"With this team, we all have something to contribute," said Becker, who has 14 goals and 12 assists this season. "We all have our own skillset that we can provide, and Barry did a really good job of putting us in position to maximize what we could do best."
GW arrived at the MAWPC Championship last week as the No. 2 seed, expecting to finish the weekend with a celebration. The Colonials showed their poise and confidence in pulling out three tight wins, including a 16-15 overtime defeat of Fordham in the semifinals.
Before the final, Deamer was the one speaking up in the huddle and urging his teammates to remember last season's title game loss. This group didn't want that feeling of disappointment again, he said.
GW flipped the script, jumping on Wagner with five straight goals to start before holding on for an 8-5 victory. Six different Colonials found the net in another impressive showcase of their depth.
Fittingly, all four seniors walked together to accept the MAWPC Championship plaque afterward. Their smiles showed their appreciation of a moment that seemed so far away not so long ago.
"It's emotional," Braun said. "We've been through so much in terms of water polo and just in life. We've spent four years being each other's best friends, being each other's brothers. I'm just so incredibly proud of what we were able to accomplish."
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