Seven-Time Water Polo Champions at Penn to Host Ivy League Competition

The University of Pennsylvania Water Polo team really knows how to make a splash.

One of the most rigorous collegiate sports clubs, water polo consists of six players and one goalkeeper guarding a net in a pool.

It involves treading water and passing a ball, trying to score a goal by getting the ball into the net.

As a sport, water polo requires its players to be in top physical condition, as it blends soccer, wrestling, basketball, lacrosse and swimming in a risky skillful dance.

Carles Alonso, a native of Barcelona, is one of the two Penn Quakers team captains.

“It is an immensely difficult sport,” says Alonso, a senior majoring in international studies, finance, and Arabic and Islamic studies. “Conditioning for it requires a close balance of weight lifting, swimming and skill training.”

The other captain is Nick Grover, a senior from Pasadena, Calif., majoring in philosophy, politics and economics at the College of Arts and Sciences.  Grover started playing water polo at age 12 and has been playing as a member of Penn’s team since his freshman year.

Water polo is definitely a tough sport, he says. 

“It demands a lot out of every part of your body and you’re essentially wrestling under water,” Grover explains. 

As a member of several clubs on campus like the Wharton Investment and Trading Group, freshman Sacha Best still manages to find the time it takes to maintain his place on the water polo team. 

Hailing from Los Angeles, Best, is a digital media design and engineering major. He says water polo is a great for stress relief and an optimal way to stay fit.

“We practice four nights a week, with many players swimming outside of practice to get in better shape,” Best says.  “In the off-season we have weight-lifting routines in preparation for the next year, and we have pre-season training before classes start.”

Last year, the Quakers went undefeated, 4-0, at the Wildcats Invitational Tournament and collected two wins and a loss at the Greenwich Aquatics Fall Invite.  They finished third in the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Division.

This year, the 18-member men’s water polo team underwent an intense pre-season training camp after welcoming new players, five freshmen and three graduate students. The team members believes this crop of fresh competitors offers the speed and firepower required to rule the pool. 

Best, who has been playing water polo for seven years, says the most exciting thing about playing for Penn is being a part of the team itself.

“We are all close and end up spending a lot of time together,” Best says. “Especially coming in as a freshman, it was nice to have a soft landing with friends when classes began.”

Zach Ennis, a freshman and Wharton finance major from Orange County, Calif., agrees.

“We have a team consisting of many diverse cultures, personalities and ages, but at the same time there is a strong sense of brotherhood,” Ennis says. “We have a successful team because we trust each other and enjoy competing together.”

Combined with the 10 players who returned from last year, this year’s group also has the solid experience of seasoned veterans with the ability to dominate their opponents.

Sophomore Brandon Chong is from Singapore and has played water polo for nearly a decade. He’s a member of the Singapore National Men’s Water Polo Team and represented Singapore in the Southeast Asian Games in 2011.

Chong is working on a dual-degree in political science and finance.  As a returning player, he says this season’s team is unstoppable.

“Our team is really bonded this year,” Chong says. “The enthusiasm from our teammates and coach is truly infectious.”

Penn’s water polo team dates back to the 1970s, but it only began competing in the Mid-Atlantic Division of the Collegiate Water Polo Association in 1995.

Since then, Penn has taken home the division title in 1995, 1996, 1997, 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2010.

Alonso says the team is ready to bring home its eighth championship.

“Everyone is intelligent, energetic and committed, which creates the cohesiveness needed to shape a winning team,” Alonso, who is also active in other clubs on campus, says.

Collegiate water polo teams across the country play about 25 games from early September through mid-November.

Head coach Antonio Merlo is also the Lawrence R. Klein Professor of Economics, as well as the director of the Penn Institute for Economic Research. He started coaching the team at Penn in 2008.

Merlo grew up in Italy and started playing water polo at age 12. He played in the National Water Polo League in Italy for most of the 1980s and served as the assistant coach at the University of Minnesota, as well as the coach at New York University before coming to Penn in 2000. 

Merlo says this year’s team is possibly the strongest he’s ever coached, perhaps even stronger than the 2008 and 2010 teams that brought home the Mid-Atlantic Division title and placed 10th on the national stage at the National Collegiate Club Championship.

“The team excels both in offense and defense and combines outstanding ball-handling skills and experience in every position,” Merlo explains. The Ivy League Championship, established in 2010, is a competition in which varsity teams from Brown, Harvard and Princeton, along with collegiate club teams from Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Penn and Yale battle in a tournament for the title.

This year, nearly 150 student-athletes will travel to Penn to compete.

The 2013 Ivy League Water Polo Championship will take place at the Sheerr Pool, located in the David Pottruck Health and Fitness Center, 3701 Walnut St., Saturday, Oct. 19-Sunday, Oct. 20.

“We are especially looking forward to playing in the Ivy Championship in front of our home crowd to showcase the talent of our team in front of our alumni, parents and supporters,” says Merlo.

The team’s schedule is available at

For more Penn water polo photos, click here.

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