March 6, 2013
By Greg Mescall
It's probably one of those moments that'll flash through at the end of my life. Bam! That was a really bright moment.--Jon Sanchez
It'll be 21 years this summer.
Two decades and 12 months since a group of young men from the east coast under the name Annapolis turned the age-group water polo establishment on its head.
They cruised into Southern California for two weeks and didn't lose a single match. When the dust settled, their trophy read 17U Junior Olympic National Champions. They had done something no other non-California squad had done before--and as they've come to find out, nobody has done since.
Think about it: Children have been born and completely aged out of water polo in the span of time since an east coast team took down the California elite.
This special group from the year 1990 was the work of many hands. If it takes a village to raise a child, well then it took half the eastern seaboard to raise these champions.
A Bold Vision
It started with a vision to grow the sport and to compete at the highest level.
Most remember that the team started with Wolf Wigo and Brad Schumacher. Best friends from New York and Maryland, respectively, they have been Olympians together, as well as business partners; but in the late 1980s, all they could manage was treading water on the wrong side of a lot of lopsided matches.
Like many great championship teams, often you must go through the bad before you get to the good.
"[This run for Annapolis] started [by] going out there as 14s and getting their butts kicked," said Bruce Wigo, former head of USA Water Polo and Wolf's dad.
For Schumacher and Wigo the bad was the first Junior Olympics they played with the Annapolis club in St. Louis in 1987. Against older competition their team got worked over repeatedly. Twenty-goal losses were not out of the ordinary, and championship thoughts were not reality.
Luckily the pain was short lived. They would regroup and reload, armed with Wigo--the Michael Jordan of east coast age-group water polo at the time-- a lightning-fast Schumacher, and powerful centers, Chris Tengwall and Jason Bois. The Annapolis group would finally see its first national-level success, winning the 15U division at the 1988 Junior Olympics in Orlando, FL. (It's worth noting that at the time the JOs were for 13U, 15U, and 17U age divisions only.)
The squad had its sights set on something larger: the 17U Championship, the ultimate age-group championship available at the time. In 1989, the tournament was held in Clovis, CA--it was a chance to win the ultimate in the state always known as the epicenter of water polo.
The Annapolis group retooled its roster a bit, adding some local players from Poway, a club in Northern San Diego, but it fell short of a title.
"First time we did [Junior Olympics] we got our butts kicked pretty bad," said Wolf Wigo, "then just a great progression: lose by eight, lose by four, then tie the top team, and we ended up getting fourth, and that was sort of a breakthrough."
But the following summer Annapolis assembled a team that was not to be reckoned with.
In 1990, California would take notice. "That was a zone team before the zone team concept was formalized," said Schofield. "That was an ODP program before the ODP program was formalized."
Started by Lloyd Robinson and Mike Schofield, the Head Coaches of Iona College and the Naval Academy respectively, they would be joined by Dan Sharadin, Head Coach at Villanova for the summer competition. The team reflected its coaches--ultracompetitive and fundamentally sound.
How the Unthinkable Began...
East coast water polo in the 1980s was still in its infancy. While several colleges offered men's water polo, the age-group programs were lacking. When those early Annapolis clubs competed at Junior Olympics, they were the only team from the east coast (unlike today's event that sees both boys and girls clubs from Connecticut to Florida compete annually).
Out of necessity (i.e., lack of enough clubs or players), athletes who wanted to compete at a high level had to join forces at every opportunity. What this meant was Schofield's Annapolis club and Sharadin's Young Athletes of America club out of Philadelphia brought their kids together. It meant that Ed Reed of Little Rhody Aquatics (Providence) and Carl Quigley of Terrier Water Polo (Brooklyn) and Robinson of Iona Water Polo (New Rochelle, NY) brought their kids together. Still that didn't mean a ton of competition, so practice time was essential.
"The attention to detail and the amount of time we spent on fundamental skills [was huge]," said Schumacher. "The amount of detail and level of our fundamentals was a direct result of what the coaches were doing with us. We had the athletic ability, but we needed the foundation to be able to compete. We didn't get games like people in California do. It just goes to show you it doesn't matter where you play, you don't need to be in the mecca of the sport to compete."
Getting After It
If you wanted a game, you had to go get it. These clubs would do just that--loading up vans and driving up and down the I-95 corridor to take on each other in weekend tournaments. When they weren't playing each other, they were playing in local school leagues. Water polo is always viewed as a community, but perhaps the east coast scene at that time took it to a new level. Along with competing against each other in a different era of NCAA regulations, spurred by Robinson they started to assemble a best of their best to take on local college teams and other powerhouses such as the New York Athletic Club. They gained experience not available in the practice pool or at any age-group tournament. They were becoming battle tested.
At the same time they started to become friends. Traveling from state to state didn't mean always staying in hotels. It meant dinners at Schumacher's house or sleepovers at Joe Alton's place. A large group of guys were becoming a unit, in and out of the pool.
"My biggest point is that it was not possible without the collaboration of a whole bunch of parents and coaches and kids that got along very well and kids that were willing to get in the car and drive and play a whole bunch of tournaments," said Schofield. "We were all over the place; we were at Brown, Fordham, Navy--wherever we could find competition. The NYAC was good enough to allow us to enter some of their tournaments, which they don't even have any more. It was a truly collaborative effort. No individual agendas."
Despite the weekend tournaments and college matches, none of these clubs individually--Little Rhody, YAA, Annapolis--made a dent on their own at a major championship. Even in the year Annapolis won the 15s or placed highly, it pulled players from other clubs.
But in 1990 Bruce Wigo had a bigger vision.
Wigo--father of Wolf and former head of USA Water Polo during the 1990s--at the time was a key member of the East Coast water polo scene. All the clubs on the east coast wanted growth and had ideals of growing their own clubs large enough to routinely qualify in and compete in tournaments all over the country, including Junior Olympics. But in 1990 that just wasn't reality. The next best option? Combine the best of who they did have. Some might view it as an all-star team, and to that end, it was a team of stars, but it was also an opportunity for growth. Besides, as far as most of California was concerned, a team from Annapolis wouldn't be much of a challenge anyway.
"It was definitely something I was striving for," said Paul Cruzan, a member of that 1990 team. "This was a very prestigious thing to get picked for. Brad and Wolf were already pretty high up on the scene as far as elite water polo players, so just to be able to practice with them was really cool. I jumped at the opportunity."
Wigo, along with Schofield and Robinson, set about pulling together a roster of kids to compete that summer in California. They practiced for a few weeks in Annapolis, worked on the fundamentals--a constant in Annapolis--and then geared up for the West Coast. They went out early and competed in a pre-JO tournament before readying up for the main event. When Robinson couldn't make the trip out west, Sharadin was asked to join Schofield.
"This was kind of the perfect storm, there was some genuinely gifted and talented kids that were going to be graduating and moving on, and [the thought was] let's not squander this level of talent and put it on a team and see if we can do something remarkable with it," said Sharadin.
While some of today's clubs can enter three different levels of the same age group in JO qualification, that wasn't a big issue facing the leaders of this group. Eventually they settled on 15 players to make the trip, and to be honest, 15 players that could afford the trip. It would cost each player roughly $750 to participate, and when all the commitments were met, Schofield and Sharadin had their guys.
Wigo and Schumacher
It started with Wigo and Schumacher, and there wasn't really any hiding these guys from the rest of the country. Turns out that Wigo wasn't just good for the east coast, he was good for any coast, anywhere. A Manhattan high school water polo player was a little like an Alaskan beach volleyball player--you know, there's probably sand somewhere, but not much of it. Wigo split his time dominating the swimming world for Bronx Science and playing water polo with the Terrier Club in Brooklyn and 20 somethings at the New York Athletic Club. By the time that summer came around, Wolf Wigo was on the national radar, but he was just one kid.
"[There] was a certain chip on the shoulder about being from the east coast," said Jim Killinger, a starter on the '90 team. "Wolfie was better than everybody. He made us better. I certainly never played better than when we played with Wolf. We were really confident. Wolf was very good at making it clear to us that we were as good as any of these guys: `Hey, I train with these guys; you are good as any of them!' He was a really mature player. He got it."
Schumacher was fast in the water--eventually that meant Olympic fast--but for the time being it was just fast. He was one of a few locals from Bowie, MD, and he had been part of the Schofield group since shortly after swim lessons. Swimming was his go-to sport, but water polo was becoming a bigger part of the picture--and like Wigo, he was beginning to turn heads, showing up at National Team tryouts, training camps, and the like.
What made this team special was that it didn't just stop with Wigo and Schumacher; depending on the day, things were just getting started. Killinger was one of Sharadin's guys out of Pennsylvania. One of the best pure shooters on the team, that summer would give him one of the games of his life. Jason Bois was a Reed disciple from Little Rhody. A left-handed hole set who was an absolute beast at two meters, Bois balanced the rest of the offense.
Jeff Bodle was the goalie, another YAA guy from Philadelphia, and an older player in the group at 17. But they also had Joe Alton to mind the net and add depth; Alton could have been the starter, too ( he eventually went on to play for Schofield at Navy).
The Naval Academy was how Jon Sanchez ended up on the team. He never even had a club to call his home in Ohio, so he followed his older brother down to Annapolis during summers and got involved with Schofield's annual camp. Sanchez hung around long enough to get involved with the summer team Annapolis put together.
Ed Vilandrie was another New England guy, a teammate of Bois' from Little Rhody who was yet another scorer. Ron Gonen came from New York, one of the youngest on the team. Chadd Crump came from the Philly area and the YAA. Emil Sichet was from New York and the Terrier Club. Clay Spencer, young like Gonen, was out of the Maryland area and an original Annapolis guy; same for Tim Kane out of Baltimore. Paul Cruzan came from Pennsylvania; another big guy (akin to Bois) came from New York in the form of Rohan Rambukpotha.
"Odd Couple" Coaches
As likeminded as the group of 15 players were, their coaches couldn't have been more different.
"Our coaches were complete opposites, good cop-bad cop all the time," said Sanchez. "Dan Sharadin was the nicest guy; Schofield would stand up like Bobby Knight and scream `God dammit!' as loud as possible. Sharadin would stand up and scream `Golly!' We were always a little closer to Sharadin; when something bad was happening, you wanted to be near Sharadin."
But something about that balance paid off. Schofield--a water polo tactician and expert in instilling that competitive drive--combined with Sharadin, no slouch himself on the Xs and Os and a voice of reason in the heat of battle.
Short on preparation time, the team was assembled and took off for California. Expectations, depending on who you talk with, were all over the map: Supreme confidence to total uncertainty. The guys who'd been around and won back in '88 or had seen time at the National level knew what could be accomplished; those in the mix for the first time were bringing a little more trepidation.
"We were pretty cocky," said Killinger. "Wolf was ridiculously cocky. He talked a ton of trash in the water. I don't think there was ever a game we felt we weren't going to win. I don't remember feeling that intimidated--even me, not one of the superstars."
Said Wigo: "If you ask other people, probably we don't stand in a chance. In our minds we knew we could compete and win--and if we got second place in that tournament, it would have been a disappointment. We were going out there to win the tournament. We had just a lot of prove."
"We really had no idea, all we knew is that California was the best," added Ed Vilandrie. "At that point we didn't know that Wolf and Brad would go to the Olympics, and at least 10 other guys would end up Division I college players. We had no idea."
A Dream Begins Coming True
What happened once they arrived in the Golden State not many could have envisioned. The coaches had scheduled some pre-tourney competition against some of the best Southern California had to offer. Once the team hit the water, they weren't just winning games, they were destroying teams. At the Villa Park tournament preceding JOs, the Annapolis boys rolled up a perfect record, including a victory at Newport Harbor in what was a lead-up match to the United States taking on Russia.
"We went down in the heart of water polo," said Wolf Wigo. "We played Corona del Mar [among others]; we beat them up pretty good going into JOs. That gave us a lot of confidence. It wasn't really a surprise; it felt good every time."
Bois remembers a feeling seemingly coming from other squads: "Who's this east coast team? Then they get killed, and they knew who we were."
"Teams would underestimate us; they thought these east coast guys will be easy, and we'd kick the crap out of them," remembers Schumacher. "People didn't want to see us win, a team from the east coast."
It was probably around that time that people in California started to take notice. Sure they knew of Wigo and Schumacher, but it still didn't mean a team from Annapolis was supposed to come into their pools and win, let alone win big. There was a chip on the shoulder of a lot of these Annapolis kids--a chance to show that you could do big things even if you weren't from California.
"We were representing the east coast," said Spencer. "We definitely thought it was an east-west rivalry."
"It was borderline Bad News Bears, and the west coast folks thought, `No way!' said Rambukpotha. "I think it made it even sweeter with all the people underestimating what would take place."
The 1990 Junior Olympics
As they entered into the Junior Olympics, held that year in Long Beach, CA, the squad began its historic run. Schofield had to join the Naval Academy team at men's nationals, so Sharadin was alone at the helm--and the team clearly had a range of emotions. For some the idea of winning a Junior Olympics wasn't even that big of a deal. For others it meant everything.
For the water polo community it was a watershed moment.
There was no Internet in 1990, so definitive stats are sketchy at best, more gleaned through the memories of the athletes and coaches. Regardless this is the consensus opinion of how things shook out: The preliminary rounds were a breeze as they blew through the likes of Baker Road of Texas and Daisy of St. Louis. The possibility of a championship started to take hold with an early-round win over Trojan, 12-8. Powered by Wigo and Schumacher, the team moved on to face Coronado. These two groups had a kind of bond via the military (there were huge Navy contingents based in each town), albeit separated by 3,000 miles. The Coronado game would prove Annapolis' first major test, and the match ended in a tie.
"I was pissed off that that game was a tie," said Wigo. "I didn't want to have anything [negative] on our record."
"Early in the tournament, we were doing really well," said Sanchez. "We started to gain a little bit of respect, but every team thought it was a bit of a Cinderella story--that we were good but just getting lucky with the teams we played. I remember becoming more and more excited. It was palpable. As we got closer, it got really exciting."
It was on to the semi-finals and a meeting with Simi Valley, CA. Annapolis again were winners and moved on to the title bout--a rematch with Trojan. The east coast squad had yet to lose, and a Junior Olympic championship (along with history) was on the line.
"I remember the whole place sold out," said Vilandrie. "It felt like whole place was filled up. It felt like at least 1,000 people there, and basically every other team that was still at the tournament went there to cheer against us. No one wanted a non-California team to win it."
Trojan had a long memory of the earlier loss to Annapolis and made sure to do everything possible to corral Wigo, Schumacher, and even Bois. All that did was leave a chance for someone else to shine. Jimmy Killinger stepped up that day and scored six goals, single handedly outscoring Trojan on the way to an 8-5 win and the title. Killinger was named Co-MVP along with Bodle, and the disbelief set in on the West Coast.
Not only had an east coast team come out and won the biggest age-group championship around, it had done so in convincing fashion.
"I remember being very surprised that I had scored six goals," said Killinger. "I don't remember being a scoring threat, and then it was over. Then we kind of went our own way and celebrated, a lot of exuberance."
Before long they were trashing around in the pool, celebrating a most improbable (although to them, very probable) title run and unknowingly setting a bar that has yet to be matched. They got their medals and their trophy and spent the remaining time in California like they spent all their other time--with each other. They were loving life on the sand of Seal Beach until the sun came up, and it was an early flight back home to spread word of their triumph. Nobody got a text message or Facebook wall post about the big win; they had to show the rest of the polo kids on the east coast what had happened for themselves.
"The most important part of this, if you are talking about the people that made it happen, it's Bruce Wigo, Mike Schofield, and Lloyd Robinson. They did the grunt work to make it happen, they provided the competitive opportunities. It's kind of unfair I received all the benefits of all their hard work. I feel bad that anyone would give me credit for this, I experienced all the gravy for all the hard work those guys did," said Sharadin.
The Rest of the Story
And as fast as they dismantled the California elite, the team itself drifted apart--a product of the goal in the first place: Growing the sport. The next year guys like Bodle and Killinger were too old for the age group. Wigo was on to bigger things with the National Team. And as for everyone else? The big win spurred such interest in the sport that all the clubs could try and compete for themselves. A mission had been accomplished, and unfortunately the country's best water polo buffet had closed down shop in favor of more regional cuisine.
Annapolis would be back the following year, anchored by Schumacher and replete with more Maryland guys. They'd be good, too, advancing to the final four of the Junior Olympics, but the window on a title had closed as fast as it had opened.
So, for one perfect summer in 1990, the east coast had all the pieces--and nobody has found them since.
Phone calls across the country have old memories flooding the minds of 15 grown men, some of whom still keep in touch. Over time the team scattered all over the country, and for some all over the world; none remained in Annapolis, and some ventured as far as Asia. Water polo players have routinely gone on to great colleges and even better jobs, but what this crew has put together shows the JOs weren't the final highlight of something great, but just the beginning of an amazing montage.
They'd become Olympians, laywers, doctors, servicemen--and they all started with water polo.
There's that scene at the end of Stand by Me where the four best friends have seen the dead body, come back to town, and then go their separate ways. As Richard Dreyfuss narrates the path each man would take, some journeys are successful, and others are riddled with heartache. If this story had a famous narrator, they'd be able to tell 15 distinctly excellent tales. Said Sichet: "We spread out like a shotgun."
No matter what the last 21 years has seen in each of their lives, they still haven't forgotten the summer of 1990 when they did the unthinkable. "It was a fabulous experience, you can look back at a time when you were a kid and developing as a human being, its something that we'll have forever," said Schumacher.
"It's definitely at the top of the list, mainly because it wasn't done before and hasn't been done since. Really an underdog situation; not many people believe in you except yourselves, and that's what makes it special."--Wolf Wigo
This article appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of SkipShot Magazine
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