They are not varsity athletes according to NCAA definitions. They do not get fancy Nike sweatshirts. They train every night from 7:30 to 10:30 after the varsity swimmers leave the pool. They are unknown to most Yalies. They are a group of passionate guys who are extremely good at playing water polo.
The men’s water polo team finished third in the 2003 Men’s National Collegiate Club Championship held in Texas Nov. 7-9. This achievement was the Bulldogs’ most significant in the decade since the program’s varsity status was revoked in 1991. But it was not easy at all.
To start off, the club could not afford a legitimate coach because of a lack of financial support. The squad is now led by three determined seniors who will do anything to keep the club running: player-coach Will Reid ’04 and co-captains Andrew Bassford ’04 and Doug Hausladen ’04. Unlike varsity captains, Bassford and Hausladen not only have to lead their squad in the water, but they are also primarily responsible for managing the finances that get their team into the pool financially.
“With only five hundred dollars from the school, we had to find other ways to generate funds for the club,” Bassford said. “But thanks to the players’ parents and also generous alums of the club, we were able to raise seven thousand dollars last year and it made this year’s trip to Nationals possible for us.”
There is one alumnus who did not help the club financially, but was integral to the Bulldogs’ success — George Gross ’74, a star player and current head coach of the Canadian Water Polo National Team.
“I think we owe a lot of this year’s success to George [Gross],” said Reid. “When we were trying to get him to sponsor us a few years ago, George said that he [wouldn't] give us a penny, but he [could] train us if we came up to Toronto.”
Indeed, that is exactly what the squad did. Two weeks before the beginning of the semester, the Elis traveled to Toronto to kick off their preseason preparation with an intense two week training camp with Gross.
“George is just the most knowledgeable English-speaking person [about water polo].” Reid said.
Returning from Canada, the Bulldogs’ hopes for a regional title seemed shattered when Reid broke two fingers during practice, forcing him to the sidelines for the first four games of the season. Without the 6’7″ fielder, the Elis had to compensate for the loss of their offensive weapon by strengthening their defense. Goalkeeper Bassford, the New England division MVP last year, saved the Bulldogs countless times, maintaining an undefeated record of 11 games en route to the New England Division Championship.
After regional qualification, the Bulldogs set themselves a new goal — to be in the top four in the Nationals. Yale was ranked No.12 in the nation going into the tournament and not many expected the Bulldogs’ mighty campaign in Texas.
With the return of Reid, the squad continued to train like varsity athletes, practicing every night from Monday to Friday for three hours at the Payne Whitney Gym. On the last day of practice before heading to Nationals, the entire squad shaved their heads and were determined not to look back from that point.
After beating the University of Texas 7-4 and Miami University 9-6, the Bulldogs entered the semifinals against the University of Michigan. Despite falling to the Wolverines 7-4, the Bulldogs earned third place overall in the Championship, defeating No. 2 seeded University of Arizona 8-4. Michigan eventually went on to win the title.
Following their excellent performances in the tournament, Reid and Chris Van Den Berg GRD ’05 were both selected to the second All-Nation Team. For Reid, though, the team’s achievement was vastly more satisfying.
“We were ranked No.12 in the country going into the Nationals. We came out [of the Nationals] ranking No.3,” Reid said. “I am still smiling about it everyday.”
The Bulldogs last won the National Championship in 1904. One hundred years later, they came up big again and the captains believe that it can only get better from here.
“I think it will be hard for the guys to defend what we have achieved this year,” Hausladen said. “But I think they can do it.”