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Michigan State women’s water polo club team looks to recapture magic

MSU Water Polo 1
Photo Courtesy of @msuwaterpolo Instagram
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Photo Courtesy of @msuwaterpolo Instagram
The 2020 women’s club water polo senior class poses after a game during their 2020 season that was cut short.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State senior Alaina Murphy was sitting in class when she got the email. It was an announcement from MSU President Samuel Stanley, on March 11, 2020, stating in-person classes were being moved online for at least a month due to the emergence of COVID-19 in Michigan.

At first, it seemed like a bit of a relief.

“I had an exam the next day,” said Murphy. “When I got the message that practice was cancelled, I was like, ‘Thank God, I can just go home and study’.”

MSU Water Polo 1
Photo Courtesy of @msuwaterpolo Instagram
The 2020 women’s club water polo senior class poses after a game during their 2020 season that was cut short.

Her club water polo practice: canceled for a few days. Then a few weeks.

Eventually, she realized the initial relief she felt was turning into something else.

“Over time, my mentality started to dwindle a bit,” said Murphy. “I started to become a lot less inspired in my classes and it was just hard not being around the team every day.”

She wasn’t seeing her teammates. She wasn’t able to play the sport she loved. The MSU women’s club water polo team provided the escape she needed from daily life.

“It was difficult on my mental health because swimming and being with the team was my outlet for my entire freshman year and part of my sophomore year,” said Murphy. “For that to be taken away just kind of put me into a depression.”

The team went over a year and a half without being in the pool together. Time, experience, and relationships: lost. Her teammates were feeling the same way. The lack of normalcy after the season was hard to take.

“One of the things that occurred to me later on was that we never got to formally say goodbye,” said senior Rachel Dietz. “For the longest time I never got to see the seniors that graduated. We didn’t get to do any of our traditions to send them off...it was almost like we didn’t get closure after having such a great season.”

A year that was meant for repeating as Big Ten champions were instead spent behind computer screens without time in the water. These women who were so used to floating in the water were instead flapping their fingers on a keyboard.

MSU Water Polo 2
Photo Courtesy of @msuwaterpolo Instagram.
The team displays their Big Ten Championship plaque after their win to clinch the title.

Fast forward to September 2021. In-person classes are back in a majority, the campus is busy and Spartan Stadium is filled with 70,000 fans. Beyond the classroom, the women’s club water polo team should be able to focus on recapturing what it had before the COVID-19 pandemic: a team that was champion of the conference and finished ninth in the nation.

But their minds now shift to another concern: the idea that their team could be taken away from them again.

“We’re concerned that MSU may want to get rid of the pool altogether,” said Murphy.

In October 2020, Michigan State announced it was cutting the men’s and women’s varsity Swimming and Diving teams, citing financial difficulties. A lack of proper on-campus facilities was another factor that caused MSU Athletics to discontinue the programs.

Club sports are unique. The members of the team use their own money to pay for their uniforms, coaches, facilities, refs, the list goes on. The women’s club water polo team is not involved in MSU Athletics’ budget at all, but the lack of support for the Swimming and Diving team troubled Murphy and her teammates.

The team practices at IM West. That’s where the main pools are located on Michigan State’s campus. When MSU Athletics cut the varsity programs, the worry was the initial feeling in Murphy’s mind.

“The first thing I thought when they cut swimming was, ‘Oh, the next thing they’re gonna do is take our pool away’,” said Murphy. “The outdoor pool (at IM West) that we’ve played tournaments at before and practiced at before never got filled. So there is that concern that MSU will just kind of say ‘Bye’ to us.”

If MSU was to get rid of the pool facilities on campus, that would most likely spell the end for the women’s club water polo team.

“The only way we could get [a high school pool facility] would be if we went really early like 4 a.m. or really late around 10 at night,” said Murphy. “I just don’t think that would be feasible with everyone’s schedules.”

The team consists of around 50 women, split between two separate squads. Team dues are normally around $400 to $450 per player.

“We do bring in revenue by hosting tournaments,” said Murphy. “If we were to go to a high school, we wouldn’t be able to host any tournaments.”

MSU Water Polo 3
Senior sprinter Alaina Murphy prepares to make a pass.

Angela Michael, Michigan State Associate Director of Recreation Sports and Fitness Services, oversees 27 club sports, including water polo. She doesn’t see a future where there is not a women’s club water polo team on campus.

“I am not concerned about them going away,” said Michael. “We have to have a pool.”

Beginning in Fall 2021, MSU assessed a mandatory and non-refundable student recreational facility fee. $50 for the fall semester and $50 for the spring semester. By the 2023-24 academic year, the fee will increase to $130 per semester, totaling $260 per student per year.

That’s a big reason MSU should have the capability to maintain the facilities needed for water polo.

“I am remaining optimistic that we are going to see upgraded facilities, including a pool, in our near future,” said Michael.

When told Michael’s comments, Murphy was elated.

"Oh my gosh, that is so exciting,” said Murphy.

Now Murphy can focus on one last ride with her team, her family.

And the start of next season on the first day of the spring semester cannot come quickly enough.

“Having water polo come back this season is really exciting,” said Murphy.

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