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Behind the success of the Michigan State men’s water polo team

Nicholas Rewey

The program’s storied history has deep roots in its culture of brotherhood – and they don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.

During crisp fall days on the campus of Michigan State University you can find students walking to class along the Red Cedar River and celebrating after big football wins. But behind the doors of the IM West Fitness Center there’s a lesser known team hard at work: the men’s water polo.

It’s not varsity at Michigan State, but that doesn’t take away from the competitiveness of the team. The group is made up of students from every class, 33 in all last season, and has earned itself a cult following of sorts over the years from those who know the game well. That’s because of the rich history of the program – 14 Big Ten championships and four national championships, with the latest coming in 2021.

“I knew MSU was good but I didn’t really anticipate myself playing water polo in college because I was kind of burnt out and just wanted to swim in my free time,” said Henry Mason, a senior from the San Francisco Bay area. “And then on my first day swimming I met the president because he was lifeguarding, so I guess that didn’t last long.”

Nicholas Rewey

The team practices Monday through Thursday from 8-10 p.m. at IM West during the season but spends most weekends on the road. In 2023, the team only had three home games, all at a season opening tournament known as the Sparty Invite.

“Being away for tournaments is difficult for social life but at the bottom line it’s a club team so we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Mason said. “We’re just competitive.”

That competitiveness has largely contributed to the program's success.

“If you look at the UC San Diego roster, some of the dudes on there dropped down from their varsity team,” Mason said. “If you’re not getting playing time on a varsity squad you’re still going to be insane in club and they have like four guys that did that.”

But that proved to still not be enough three years ago as Michigan State beat UC San Diego for the national championship.

Colleges in California have always dominated the sport, at least at the varsity level. The final four teams this year were UCLA, Princeton, Cal and USC. Granted, fewer than 100 universities have varsity men’s water polo teams, and only 32 of those are NCAA Division I.

“You definitely need some sort of water polo experience from the past, whether you played in high school or you are a swimmer,” said Jack Blodgett, a senior on the team from Dexter, Michigan. “I would say that people who just show up thinking it’s just going to be a club for water polo will be mistaken just because of the culture we’ve built and the commitment people have in the off-season to train.”

Coming off the heels of its national championship, the team quickly ran into a problem early in the 2022 season.

“Our previous coach left, so for the remainder of that year we had to coach ourselves which proved to be pretty damn difficult,” Mason said. “This season we found a new coach who played varsity water polo in college at USC years ago, but this was his first season with us.”

The new coach, Tom Anderson, led the team to a fourth place finish this season after qualifying for nationals by beating Michigan in the Big Ten championship.

Winning the national championship was Mason's favorite moment from water polo so far, although he’ll be back for one more semester in the fall. As for Blodgett, making nationals in 2023 was his most fond memory from his time on the team.

“This season I contributed a lot more than previously to the team’s success so I’d say it felt a lot better when we won and got to fly out to Utah and compete for a national title,” he said.

Growing up in a big aquatic sports family, Blodgett was exposed to water polo at a young age after his siblings picked it up first.

“As we got older water polo was offered in our high school and middle school and I kind of just followed my brother,” he said “It’s been what I’ve done since seventh grade.”

Being a club sport, none of the expenses are covered by the university, so the team relies on themselves and fundraisers for everything from equipment to travel.

“We have a pretty good alumni program and every time we get to nationals they really fund it. So this year we would’ve had to pay $650 but instead we each just had to pay $250 because they fundraise a lot,” Mason said.

The guys on the team aren’t particularly fans of their facility at IM West – they say it’s the worst pool in the Big Ten – but that will all be changing soon. There is a new 50-meter pool coming in the new student recreation center under construction. The building set to be completed in 2026 will replace the 64-year-old IM West, which will be torn down.

At its core, Blodgett credits the culture of the Michigan State water polo program for the team’s history of success. He says the commitment and the drive to win that members bring to the table helps foster a feeling of brotherhood.

“It impacted me tremendously. It was where I met a lot of my friends and my social life and it was something I was always able to talk about in terms of sports and relating to people,” he said. “Being able to communicate and say I did something athletically was big for me.”

For Mason, he’s not saying goodbye to the team just yet as he will be back for one last season in the fall.

“It’s a club but it feels like so much more than a club,” Mason said. “It’s definitely been a huge part of my college experience.”

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