Blair’s New Water Polo Team Makes a Splash
Adele Starrs

Head coach Mitch Towne wasn’t sure what to expect on the other side of the glass, but it wasn’t what he found. Opening the door to the Wallace Pool for the first home game of the season, the coach of Blair’s water polo team was met with a thunderous wave of sound from the stands. Blair students, packed shoulder to shoulder, filled the seating area, talking and cheering so loudly that the pool room reverberated. “I was shocked,” says Coach Towne. “I realized that the home game had drawn a big crowd and, there is no question, that gave us a huge psychological advantage.”

In the third game of its inaugural year, the Blair water polo team had already played two matches against rivals Lawrenceville and St. Benedict’s, losing one and tying the other. “We're a first-season team competing against schools that have had programs for a long time,” explains Coach Towne. “We’ve just started building a team and our players are still learning the game’s fundamentals, so I didn’t expect to win.” But at this home game, Blair did just that, rising to the occasion to upset St. Peter’s with a score of 12 to 4.

Across all sports, teams win more often when competing at home. Part of the home field advantage can be explained by comfort—getting a good night’s sleep in one’s own bed and playing on familiar turf. But those factors did not come into play for Blair’s water polo team; Blair’s athletes sleep in the same beds every night. The only explanation, Coach Towne feels, was the support of the home crowd. “The energy in the room was electric. The way the kids responded, came out and played was just phenomenal. It’s my goal to carry that over and grow this program.” 

Building a Program

With the encouragement of Blair’s administration, the water polo team first came together last year under the tutelage of Senior Associate Dean of Admission and NCAA championship swimmer Caroline Wilson. Due to the pandemic, however, competition was postponed. This year, language teacher Mitch Towne has taken the helm. As a water polo player for Williams College’s team and having trained with the New York Athletic Club, Coach Towne has deep experience with the exciting and fast-paced sport. He happily agreed to lead Blair’s new club team along with assistant coach Rod Gerdsen. To their delight, in 2021, the water polo program fielded 14 interested students, whom Coach Towne proudly begins ticking off. 

Zoe LaMent ’22 has been a leader on the team, especially outside the pool, creating a good team dynamic,” he says. “Ethan Lau ’23 is so strong—just stellar at all aspects of the game. Ohm Poonsornsiri ’23 is incredible in goal, and Chelsea Thatcher ’23 is a fearless defender. And JC Cong ’23?” he says. “He’s just got a cannon of an arm.” 

One point that Coach Towne emphasizes, though, is the importance of teamwork. Whether players are setting up a formation, passing to teammates or forcing movement to create an opening to score, the key to success in water polo, Coach Towne says, is “working together as a team. There's room for individual brilliance, to score the goal or make the block, but everyone must play their part for the offense to work.” 

It Takes All Kinds

From the outset, Coach Towne has welcomed players of all abilities to Blair’s water polo team, relishing his role as program organizer and technical coach. While water polo has a reputation for being a strenuous contact sport—players tread water during four eight-minute quarters when they are not racing to launch the ball across the pool—Coach Towne promises that the sport is not as intimidating as it looks. “Everyone can play water polo. Students have to be able to swim, but you don't have to be a superstar swimmer. Treading water is a skill that can be learned.” Practicing five days a week in the Wallace Pool and weight lifting at Blair’s gym on Saturdays, players soon acquire all the skills they need. “Almost no one on our team had ever played water polo before this year,” he says with a smile, “and look at them now!”

Initially structured as a co-ed club that played four games this season, Coach Towne didn’t know if there would be enough student interest to support two single-gender teams. Student enrollment is strong, however, and he hopes the program will continue to grow into a varsity-level sport, which means competing against 10 to 12 teams per season. “We have terrific support from our administration and fans, and if we continue growing at this pace in numbers and ability,” he notes, “there’s a good possibility that we can grow to compete at the varsity level and at MAPLs.” 

Team co-captain Ethan Lau ’23, for one, shares that goal. “We’re doing phenomenally for our first year. We started off with eight people and have grown to a team of 14 that gels really well. We’re ready for the next level.” 

Ethan notes that there is no leader more enthusiastic than Coach Towne, nor more devoted to the task at hand. “He took us to Princeton last week,” Ethan says, to learn from their collegiate team, and frequently lugs his TV to practice so that players can replay their performance in real time. “Sometimes, Coach Towne plays goalkeeper against us in practice. He’s really, really good in goal. But the day is coming when I’m going to beat him!”

When asked which team he would like to face the most, Ethan does not hesitate. “Peddie!” he says, naming a school he hopes will use their accomplished swimmers to form a water polo team.  “I can’t wait until we play Peddie. If we play them away, we’ll beat them. If we play them at home, and all of Blair shows up like they did [against St. Peter’s]?” Ethan smiles. “We’re going to crush them.”

Follow Blair's water polo team at @blairaquatics on Instagram.
 

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