Two years removed from last place, Rice’s club water polo teams are competing — and winning. What’s driving this newfound success?

Coach Merlo with the team. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Antonio Merlo is the soundtrack that plays at every Rice club water polo game. His voice reverberates above the frenetic splashing of legs and arms. It carries over cheering parents and referees’ whistles and, on this rainy, humid day in mid-February, it can be heard beyond Ultimate Frisbee practice on the neighboring intramural field.

“Ah, so close!” he yells, jumping and turning in midair. It is the Rice women’s team’s 2018 season opener against Texas A&M University’s “B team,” and they’ve just blown their fourth “man-up” opportunity (think power play in hockey) of the first quarter. Merlo knows that being 0-for-4 on such chances is an unfortunate feat of statistical improbability. He knows that, in practice for instance, his team regularly converts at least 50 percent of their man-up opportunities. “Butterflies in stomach,” he says, brushing it off.

As the quarter ends, he gathers his players and kneels poolside. “I’ll tell you why you’re not scoring,” he says, imploring them to stick to what they’ve practiced. To beat teams that are bigger and stronger — and the Aggies might just be the biggest and strongest of the bunch — Rice cannot be stationary. Movement, Merlo says, is the key ingredient. “It’s the first game of the season,” he finishes, closing the huddle, “the scoring will come.”

He removes his blue and gray windbreaker — the one with “Coach Merlo” stitched onto the chest — and tosses it aside. He knows how hard his team has practiced and how far they’ve come. The Owls are down 3-0, but the game is just beginning.

Meg Brigman against Texas A&M. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Sink or Swim

Three seasons ago, the Rice women’s club water polo team did not win a single game. The Owls finished last in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Texas Division and barely had enough players to field a starting lineup, let alone compete — regularly forfeiting games. The program reached a nadir when, because of a rule requiring a minimum of four players to show up at each tournament, it was nearly kicked out of the league for two seasons (a fate that recently befell TCU). In fact, this story would end here, if not for a few students who skipped Beer Bike just to attend, and ultimately forfeit, a tournament at Texas Tech in order to meet the minimum-player requirement.

“I was on the bike track at Beer Bike, and I remember getting all these texts saying, ‘Somebody has to drive up there now,’” recalls Haley Kurisky, who was a freshman at the time and is now a senior captain for the Owls. “The fear was very real that we weren’t even going to have a team.”

Isabela Walkin ’20 empties a water jug while treading water in practice. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Merlo came to Rice in 2014 to serve as chair of the economics department and act as founding director of the Rice Initiative for the Study of Economics. In 2016, he became dean of Rice’s School of Social Sciences. As a renowned political economist, Merlo’s field of research, at its most basic level, asks the question: How do institutions function, and why do certain institutions succeed while others fail? This can be studied at any level from small groups of people, teams, companies and firms to governments and countries.

A first-generation immigrant and the first in his family to go to college, he’s applied those questions to the political system of his home country of Italy. As chair of the economics department, he’s applied them to his faculty team. As dean of social sciences, he’s applied them to all seven departments he governs. What motivates each individual? When you put them in an environment where they’re not just by themselves, how do you organize their interactions in a way that you achieve superior outcomes? “This is part of who I am,” Merlo says. “It’s deeply inside of me.”

The only thing more inextricably a part of Merlo is water polo.

After scoring its first goal of the game with just under three minutes left in the second quarter, Rice surrenders another goal to fall back behind by three. In an unlucky turn of events, a missed shot by the Owls turned into a fast break scoring opportunity for the Aggies. Merlo chuckles and says, “It could’ve been 3-2, but now it’s 4-1. That’s water polo.” However, with 11 seconds left, senior captain Helen Wei is fouled inside the 5-meter line and is allowed a penalty shot on goal. She scores.

As time expires, Merlo exclaims, “You’re playing wonderfully!” and collects the team to make halftime adjustments. He notes, again, that their strength is not being static. “You guys are smart,” he says, applauding their improvements over the course of the first half. “This is what it’s like coaching at Rice — you don’t have to say anything twice.” At halftime, the Owls trail 4-2.

Goalie Claire Young ’19 against Texas A&M. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Turning the Tide

The water polo community, as anyone in it will tell you, is small and close-knit. Those who truly love the sport talk about it like a sweet summer romance or, well, read for yourself: “I always joke that water polo is kind of a virus. People who are infected by it get it for life,” says USA Water Polo CEO Chris Ramsey. “In a good way, of course.”

Bill Smith, who has been involved with the sport for more than 40 years as an athlete, coach and club director, started playing water polo in college at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and established the very first Ivy League Water Polo Championships there. “I tried water polo in college, and, I’ll tell you, it was love at first sight,” he says. “I went from nothing to doing it six days a week. It was like, ‘Where has this been my whole life?’”

Merlo’s fascination with water polo, or “pallanuoto” in Italian, began at the age of 12 in the small town of Busto Arsizio, Italy, outside Milan. He was a swimmer back then, but his peers quickly outgrew him. The size disadvantage, which is hard to overcome in competitive swimming, along with the wise words of a coach, pushed him toward water polo. “Antonio, in the water, you are as tall as you want to be,” said the former coach — words that have stuck with Merlo to this day.

Ellen McMullen ’20. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

He competed for his local club team, Busto Pallanuoto — all youth sports in Italy are organized through club programs, not schools or universities — until 1987, during which time he also played for the Italian youth national team and lost an agonizing national championship game.

After coming to the U.S. to get his doctorate at New York University in 1988, Merlo played on and off with the New York Athletic Club and then for a club team called the Nordics when he was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. While in Minnesota, he got his first taste of coaching; and then, after returning to NYU as an associate professor in 1998, he established their club water polo program and served as their head coach. In 2008, he started coaching at the University of Pennsylvania and, in 2013, led their men’s team to the Ivy League Collegiate Championship, placed fifth at the National Collegiate Club Championship and won coach of the year.

When he came to Rice, coaching water polo wasn’t something he expected to do. Or, at least, that’s his alibi. “Coaching at Rice was definitely not on my radar screen. In fact, I was not even sure they would have a club team,” he says, pausing for a moment before cracking a joke. “Well, that’s not true, I did look on the website.” What drew Merlo to Rice is ultimately what drew him to Rice water polo. He is, at heart, a team builder.

Ellie Dullea ’20. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“The reason I do this is because it’s a sport I love,” he says. “I don’t care where a team is, I want to take them to where they can be. If I have a championship team, then the goal is to take them to the championship. If I have a team that has never had a winning season, my goal is to get them there. It’s so rewarding and so amazingly worth it.”

At first, Merlo attended a few Rice club games and could see they needed guidance. Michael Shashoua, a four-time NCAA water polo national champion while an undergraduate at the University of Southern California and a former player on Merlo’s championship Penn team, transferred to Rice and started playing for the men’s club team. So, Merlo agreed to help out.   

He officially became the men’s coach at the start of the 2016 season and the following season started coaching the women, too. Since then, both teams have improved dramatically. The men went from last place in the Texas Division in 2015 to third in 2017. The women, who had not won a game in two years, not only didn’t have to forfeit any in 2017, they actually won some. In Merlo’s first season at the helm, they went from last place to fourth.

“Before, the other teams never saw us as a threat. They loved playing against us,” says Kurisky. “Now, they’re actually starting to pay attention to us. They’re giving us the respect we deserve. I was immensely proud. It’s fun to win, you know?”

The offensive flood gates open for Rice during the third quarter. Sophomore Ellie Dullea, a swimmer who had never picked up a water polo ball until joining the team as a freshman, scores twice. Wei scores again with less than 30 seconds remaining to give Rice its first lead, but the Aggies respond almost immediately with a goal of their own. “It’s back to 0-0!” Merlo yells. “Let’s see which team has more in the tank.” The Owls and Aggies are tied, 5-5, heading into the fourth quarter.

Graduate student Alyssa Mullery. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Back to the Basics

The sport of water polo starts, well, in the water. Yes, this is a key, yet sometimes missed, detail about the sport so many love. “To this day, people have said to me, ‘What do you do with the horses after the match?’” says Smith. “Well, I answer, that’s a different type of polo.”

For the uninitiated, the basics of water polo are as follows: Each game is divided into four, seven-minute quarters. Each team has seven players — one goalie and six “field” players. Every athlete — and this is another detail that tends to surprise — is treading water or swimming the entire time. Water polo is played only in the deep end. The object of the game is to advance the ball the length of the pool and score by throwing it into the net past the opponent’s goalie. No player, apart from the goalie, is allowed to use two hands to catch or secure the ball. On defense, one hand needs to be in the water at all times.

Water polo’s closest sports cousin is European handball, which, like water polo, isn’t exactly mainstream. But it does bear a passing resemblance to a number of major American sports, save for baseball. There are 20-second player ejections on certain fouls and power plays or “man-up” opportunities like in hockey. There are penalty shots or 5-meter shots on goal like in soccer. Offenses also function very similarly to basketball with specific movements and plays designed to open up space for shooters.

Believe it or not, water polo is among the fastest-growing sports in the U.S., according to data from USA Water Polo and the National Federation of State High School Associations. Over the past eight years, nationwide membership rose nearly 67 percent and is at an all-time high. At the Olympic level, no one in the world is better than the U.S. women, who won their second-straight gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2018, beating their opponents by an average of seven goals per game. Over their six games in Rio, they trailed for a grand total of 44 seconds.

Helen Wei ’18. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Merlo’s philosophy is to design a system that meshes well with the strengths and weaknesses of the players on his roster. That is why he uses the versatility and speed of his smaller players to create space and movement against bigger, stronger, more static teams who prefer to slow down and space the pool. “I have them play the way I used to play in Italy, and no one is ready for it,” Merlo says. “I know how to play with a small team. I’ve been there.”

After spending two full seasons coaching the men, who play during the fall, and a season and half with the women, whose spring season is still ongoing, Merlo has gotten bigger ideas for Rice water polo — he would like to take Rice’s club program to the varsity level. If this were to happen, Rice would have the only Division I varsity water polo program in the state of Texas. Merlo sees the teams competing against Ivy League teams. Furthermore, because of his connections in the water polo community, particularly from his time at Penn, Merlo has already secured a place for Rice in the Ivy League along with Harvard, Brown and Princeton. This is the key selling point for Merlo — Rice would have a chance to compete with the Ivies in athletics as well as in the classroom.

“I will say, we would welcome Rice, very much so, into the fold. It’s a brethren-type school, one with a lot of similarities,” says Smith, who is on the USA Water Polo board of directors and is the incoming president of Fédération Internationale de Natation, which governs all aquatic Olympic sports.

There are, of course, many obstacles to consider, such as the complications of travel, equipment needs, filling coaching and training staffs, not to mention Title IX requirements. The university administration, including Athletics Director Joe Karlgaard, has also given no indication that they’re willing to add another varsity sport in the coming years — let alone whether it would be water polo if and when they did. No matter what, Rice’s success in the pool at the club level, especially for its size, is a point of excitement as well as pride.

“Having Coach Merlo there to keep us motivated is incredible,” says Wei. “I just completed a ton of med school interviews, and one of the questions they ask is, ‘What is your proudest moment in college?’ I talk about water polo.”

Dullea breaks the tie in the fourth quarter, scoring for Rice on a perfectly executed ball-side drive — a play Merlo has practiced relentlessly with the Owls in order to score on bigger, more predictable teams.

“Ellie is on fire! She’s a beast today!” Merlo yells, his voice once again raising above the crowd. Dullea scores again, her fifth goal of the game, and it appears as if the Owls are pulling away until the Aggies cut Rice’s lead to one with 1 minute, 22 seconds remaining.

Merlo stands at the edge of the pool, his eyes fixed on the clock. When the final second ticks away, he raises both arms before balling a fist and punching the air. Before his team leaves for the locker room, he says, “What a pleasure to watch you play water polo. Thank you.” The Owls win, 7-6. 


Club Sports’ Competitive Style

Rice students compete in a smorgasbord of competitive club team sports. Men’s soccer? Goal. Rugby? Bring it. Ballroom dancing? Why not? Ultimate Frisbee? They’re national champs.

Rice Rugby. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

More than 20 men’s, women’s or coed teams in 16 sports travel to other colleges and universities for competitions. Club teams, which are open to all Rice students through tryouts, are subject to stringent self-governance rules. “The clubs receive money allocated from the university, but they also collect membership dues and fundraise for travel,” said Chris Watkins, assistant director for competitive sports at the Barbara and David Gibbs Recreation and Wellness Center.

Students on competitive club teams are serious about training, playing and winning. Recently, two club rugby players received alumni scholarships to travel to New Zealand for training with the famous All Blacks national team last summer. “Anyone can support the teams,” Watkins said, “either in person at games or financially through donations to help purchase equipment or travel to tournaments.”    

For men’s soccer player Julio Soto ’18, playing on a club team fuels a longtime passion. “We talk about soccer teams, players and leagues all the time,” said Soto, who has played club soccer since he was a freshman. Now the team president, Soto and the team’s captains are in charge of scheduling, strategy — and unlike their opponents from larger Texas schools, even coaching. “Sometimes I have to coach from the field,” Soto said, “but at the same time, I like that we can run things as a team.”

Rice club teams have achieved national recognition in recent years. Women’s club soccer has competed in national championship tournaments. Perhaps the most lauded of the club teams is women’s Ultimate Frisbee. They’ve taken home club national championships two out of the last three years and are one of the longest-running club teams in Rice history. — L.G

For a full list of the university’s teams, both competitive and recreational, go here.