Monmouth’s Jesus Aguirre fights off two Austin College defenders. Greg Bartram/betterImage
By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
The Fighting Scots of Monmouth, Illinois, have been waging an uphill battle in Eastern water polo since joining NCAA varsity play in 2013. In six years of existence, the men’s and women’s teams—overseen the past three years by Head Coach Peter Ollis—has enjoyed one winning season combined (the women’s team went 9-8-1 in 2017). With an 0-8 record so far in 2018 and five matches remaining, the men are guaranteed another losing campaign.
2018 Division III Eastern Championship at Johns Hopkins University’s Newton White Athletic Center, Ollis’ team dropped two heart-wrenching decisions. In the morning there was a 15-14 loss in overtime to Connecticut College. Later that day, a 16-15 defeat by Austin, sealed when the Kangaroos’ Andrew Pope hit a five meter penalty shot with 8 seconds, left gave his team its first NCAA win in program history.
With a roster of dominated by homegrown talent—junior Jesus Aguirre, tied for the team lead with 22 goals, is from Cicero, a suburb of Chicago three hours from Monmouth—the Fighting Scots’ success should not yet be measured in wins and losses. A dynamic young coach plus growing interest in DIII water polo—rumors suggest that Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia and Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania are considering adding varsity polo—indicate that the future looks bright for Fighting Scots’ polo.
Immediately following his team’s loss to the Camels of Connecticut College, Ollis spoke with Swimming World about his team’s burgeoning rivalry with Illinois-based McKendree College as well as plans to expand DIII water polo’s reach both in the American heartland and beyond.
– That was a compelling match against Connecticut. What’s exciting is your guys were playing their hearts out.
Yeah, it was a good fight and a good challenge for us, especially being a DIII team. We play a lot of DIIs, so a good, devoted, Division III tournament [is good]. I wish the result went the other way but it was a good showing.
We’ve got [five] freshmen and we’re very proud of them.
– This tournament is currently just for East Coast schools; what about structuring a national tournament by including West Coast schools such as Pomona-Pitzer and Whittier?
It would be fantastic. I know there’s talk with the men’s and women’s [side]; I think the women’s might be slightly further ahead in an East Coast vs. West Coast championship.
A big thing is the women in the East have a more devoted conference, while the men’s teams—the DIII compete with the DII’s and the DI’s—you know your Hopkins and your MITs that are DIII by institution but DII and DI by play.
It would be fantastic for the growth if it were to happen. The big thing is that exposure is huge—bringing kids from California who don’t know where the middle of Illinois is. For us to get to play some high-profile schools would be fantastic for us.
– There’s a ton of talent on the East Coast; are they finding their way to Monmouth, IL?
If you’re bad it doesn’t matter what your zip code is, you’re bad. If you’re good, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. Our men’s and women’s rosters—the two of them are meshed with East and West Coast [players]. I’m just looking for kids who can play. Chicago’s our lifeblood; our men are three-quarters [of the roster]; our women it’s a little under 50%. There’s great kids out East; one of our starters, Tommy Schneider, is from Pennridge out in Pennsylvania. We’ve got kids from all across; we’ve got some Florida kids—our goalie Kyle Jones is from there. We’ve got Ohio, too—Quentin Bartram.
It’s fun to fall in love with California but you can get good kids anywhere. And we’re trying to get them from everywhere.
– Austin College launched their men’s program this year. What are your thoughts about the arrival of the Kangaroos on the NCAA varsity polo scene?
They’re in the MPSF for the men. For the women they’re in the CWPA in the West [bracket]; that’s actually the side our women are in as well. Seems like they’re committed to travel—they’re flying plenty for everything.
From what I’ve seen they’ve got a really good squad—especially for a first year they’re doing a great job. Any time a water polo team is added it’s awesome, DIII especially because there are teams that we can play. Adding teams is always going to be exciting—we love it.
– The closest team to you is McKendree. The Bearcats appear to be a natural rival for the Fighting Scots.
In our conference, there’s three Division III teams and four Division IIs and we play in the Mid-Atlantic West—McKendree, Salem, Gannon, Mercyhurst, Connecticut, Washington and Jefferson. Those are the seven team on our side of the conference. So, it’s DII and DIII amalgamation. We used to have La Salle, so we had DI, DII and DIII.
As a local team, we’re able to play them for our senior game at home on a Tuesday. It’s tough for our guys; you want to play a game on Saturday or Sunday, but you don’t want to drive somewhere for eight hours. We’ll go to Lebanon in two weekends and it’s a three hour drive, which for us—we love that. We can do it the day of, making it a lot easier.
They’re a strong Division II team, which definitely helps us. Any time you get to play extra games it’s awesome.
– How do you look at the sport’s trajectory at both the local and national level.
I’m excited to see more teams. You always hear rumbling; by my estimation 20 teams are being added! You never know what’s actually true and what’s a rumor. The biggest thing for us is it’s exciting to have the men’s team growing.
[We’ll see] how the MPSF and the CWPA will work out. A lot of DIII teams joining are going MPSF, like Austin. For the women I think it’s awesome. Women’s growth is exciting. We’ve got established Division III, established Division II and Division I conferences in the East. The Division II teams compete in the WWPA (Western Water Polo Association).
With the men we’re working towards that. The best thing is that East Coast water polo is really exciting right now. What Harvard’s doing—really, all those Ivies are beating each other up but they’re taking on some of the big guys on the West Coast. We’re pulling for them—even though we’re in Illinois, we consider ourselves an Eastern program.
If we could see a men’s team do what Wagner has done on the women’s side—get to the NCAA tournament and establish themselves—that would be really exciting.