Siena Senior Clare Bryar with parents Terry and Shanon, coach Tamera Perea and Saints Athletic Director John D’Argenio. Photo Courtesy: Siena Athletics
By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
LOUDENVILLE, NY – For almost an hour Sunday, in this quiet upstate community tucked just behind Albany, teams from two women’s varsity water polo programs played their collective hearts out in Siena’s Marcelle Athletics Complex pool. Two Catholic schools, whose combined record include 23 losses and only five victories; one program led by a first-ever head coach, the other by an alumna who has toiled for almost a decade to get back to her conference’s postseason tournament, vied with one another in as compelling a water polo match as is likely to take place this women’s season.
It had the whiff of a pick-up game about it. The St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers’ goalie position was alternately manned by two different field players, neither of whom had played the position before this weekend; and the undermanned host Saints of Siena could only make two substitutions for the entire match while playing in front of a goalie who walked on to the squad on Friday.
In the end, it was the Terriers who lost by a single goal despite numerous opportunities in the match’s final minutes. The Saints’ halos shone, if faintly, on a day in which they celebrated the career of senior Clare Bryar, an outstanding performer in what has been an otherwise undistinguished chapter of Siena water polo. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this match was that, after a full weekend of play, where both the Saints and Terriers played four matches, neither team conceded an inch in one of the NCAA’s most physical sports.
Concussions create chaos
Both teams were badly affected by concussions. On Thursday, Terrier Head Coach Megan Husak knew she had a serious problem coming into the first weekend of Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) play: her only goalie, Ashley Harp, would be unavailable because she was in concussion protocol, keeping her out of the St. Francis net for all MAAC matches over the weekend.
While Husak was seeking a work-around, Siena Head Coach Tamara Perea was dealing with personnel problems of her own. In her first year leading the Saints, Perea has a desperately thin roster of only 10 players; and having three players out—including two goalies—presented their young coach with an almost impossible situation. First-string goalie Kennedy Joseph had gone out with a concussion before playing a single minute this season. And after starting the Saints’ first four games, back-up Nichol Feldtz succumbed to a knee injury, although she at least is still able to play the field. Terez Touhey, a field player, was the next choice to step into the nets, but a concussion ensured she has yet to even get in the pool.
“I understand the repercussions of playing through that injury and giving it the proper care,” said Perea, who suffered multiple concussions when she played collegiate and professional polo. “But we’re struggling with the diagnosis and how to protect athletes.”
Kristen Burger, a freshman utility player, has played seven games in goal (all losses), while freshman defender Sophia Torres’ inexperience was exploited by Gannon University for 10 first-half goals in an 18-16 loss. What to do? Enter senior Fiona Dretzka, a former Siena water polo player who switched to swimming after her freshman year. On Friday, Dretzka—finished with her final season competing for Saints swimming—agreed to patrol the Siena cage.
“I’m so grateful to be able to take my field player out of the goal,” Dretzka’s new coach said just before the St. Francis match.
Acts of selflessness from the Franciscans of Brooklyn
Two St. Francis field players agreed to step into the team’s cage. Junior Sara Monckton, an athletic utility player from Stockton, California, would guard the deep end of the Siena pool. Senior Emma Gaffney, a robust 5-9, agreed to defend the soccer-sized goal in the pool’s shallow (four feet) end. For Gaffney, who last week was admitted to the Duns Scotus Honor Society, one of the highest honors bestowed by St. Francis on its students, her willingness to assume this task did not surprise her coach.
“Emma might not have always been the strongest or the fastest, and the stats may not have been impressive, but she stepped up,” Husak, who came to Brooklyn Heights as a freshman in 2004 and has never left. ”[On Saturday] between games she and my assistant coach, who played goalie for St. Francis, got into the hotel pool so they could work on a few things.”
“For a player whose career is over in a month and a half to up and change her position is phenomenal.”
A freshman and a senior lead their respective squads
Key to Siena’s attack was Bryar, who on Sunday became only the third player in program history to score more than 200 goals. For her senior day celebration, the Chicago native would deliver four goals and four assists, padding impressive career totals of 203 goals and 313 points. Bryar would be matched in points by sophomore Diana Fernandez, who knocked in three goals while distributing five assists.
St. Francis countered with Kelsey Snelgar, a veritable one-woman wrecking squad who was perfect on her eight attempts, including one five-minute stretch over the first and second period where she delivered goals on five straight shots. The freshman from Auckland, New Zealand has performed impressively over her new team’s first 13 matches, with 56 goals and 52 steals—almost five goals and steals a game.
Both teams matched scores from period to period: 3-3 after one, 7-7 at intermission until it was 11-10 for the home team entering the decisive final quarter. A lob shot over Dretzka by Claire Mueller two minutes into the fourth pulled the Terriers even. Daniella Fuertes untied the score two minutes later with a lob over Gaffney, but Snelgar delivered a superb backhand shot that evened the score at 12 with four minutes left in the game.
A five-meter penalty on the visitors twenty seconds later proved decisive, as Bryar delivered her final goal of the day to give the Saints a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. On Siena’s next possession, Fernandez gave her team a two-goal cushion, which proved to be just enough for the hosts to withstand a furious St. Francis charge at the end. Snelgar got the Terriers within one at the two-minute mark, but that would be it as the Siena posts kept out two tying attempts by Monckton, now in the field, and the Saints held on for a 14-13 win.
Dretzka—now 2-2 on the season after a win Saturday over Villanova and blowout losses to MAAC powers Wagner and Marist—was superb in net, stopping 11 St. Francis attempts. While the exhausted home team celebrated its success, the Terriers quietly gathered their gear from the pool deck. There was no shame in losing—Gaffney and Monckton had given their all filling in, and the team’s collective effort was impressive—but another one-goal loss, the Terriers’ fourth of the young season, surely made the bus trip home to Brooklyn that much longer.