BROOKLYN, NY. In an announcement that surprised and delighted water polo watchers throughout the Northeast, Long Island University—whose campus in Downtown Brooklyn is minutes from Manhattan—recently announced the formation of a women’s water polo team that will begin play in 2019. Known primarily for the success of its men’s basketball and women’s softball and volleyball teams, LIU Brooklyn is vying to become the third Division I women’s program in New York City, joining St. Francis Brooklyn and Wagner College on Staten Island as members of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC).
In a recent interview with Swimming World, Margaret Alaimo, Deputy Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator for the school’s athletics department, said that supporting women’s sports has been a long-standing institutional focus, so launching women’s polo in the Steinberg Wellness Center’s pool made perfect sense.
“It’s always been a priority for [LIU Brooklyn], and when we started to expand opportunities for women—going back to 1993—the addition of the first one was volleyball in 1994 and we went to soccer and golf, lacrosse, swimming, bowling and so on,” Alaimo said.
“As an urban campus with a pool, we thought it would be a great sport to start. We know there’s a lot of good, local competition and we think we could get into the MAAC and compete right away.”
Key to whatever future the Blackbird women’s water polo team might enjoy is membership in the MAAC. This is no simple task; for the majority of its sports, LIU Brooklyn caucuses with the Northeast Conference (NEC). Happily, there’s a good relationship with the MAAC, which like the NEC includes teams throughout the New York metropolitan region.
Three years ago when LIU Brooklyn Athletics went looking for a home for a new women’s field hockey squad, the MAAC readily complied. According to Rich Ensor, the MAAC Commissioner, past history will likely open doors for LIU to join NEC members St, Francis Brooklyn and Wagner in his conference.
“For LIU Brooklyn to join the MAAC in water polo it would have to apply for associate membership, which then would have to be reviewed by the MAAC’s administration and Council of Presidents,” Ensor said. “With LIU Brooklyn being in the MAAC’s footprint, there is opportunity for the institution to join the water polo league as an associate member.”
A host of interested parties welcomed the arrival of yet another NCAA varsity women’s polo team.
"We're thrilled that Long Island University has chosen to add women's water polo,” John Abdou, USA Water Polo Chief High Performance Officer, said in an email. “The utilization of their existing facilities and their dynamic location in Brooklyn make this a sound decision.
“The excitement of having another Northeast Conference (NEC) school add water polo strengthens the position of the sport nationally. We hope that the remaining NEC schools take advantage of the upswing of water polo both in the state of New York and around the country." he added.
“It’s fantastic in that it gives more athletes an opportunity to play at a higher level,” Megan Husak, St. Francis Brooklyn women’s head coach, said. “Adding another team to the MAAC gives a boost in strength [and is] helpful if our conference is to rise and be at a level that it should be.”
Now is an interesting moment for another women’s polo team from Brooklyn. Not only will a Blackbirds’ squad offset the recent elimination of women’s polo at Hartwick College in upstate New York, LIU is reacting to plans for a as yet-to-be-revealed residential tower on its expansive outdoor athletics fields—a proposal that will likely change the fortunes of its men’s baseball and women’s softball programs.
Against the backdrop of this impending construction, scheduled to begin in late 2019, Alaimo and her staff’s efforts to extend water polo’s reach in New York City are being scrutinized. With a full-time coaching position available, the Blackbirds hope to attract an experienced head coach who can quickly assemble a competitive team.
“We’re trying to find someone who’s humble, a good communicator, hardworking and who I would want my son or daughter to play for, “ Alaimo said. “I always put my mother’s hat on; as a parent I look for those qualities as if they were my own children that would come here and play.”
An experienced athletics administrator—she’s been at LIU Brooklyn for 29 years—Alaimo believes her school’s latest team will have a quick road to success.
“Maybe not 3 to 5 years, probably 2 to 3,” she speculated about competing for a MAAC title. “We feel like we could be up and running, have a healthy sized roster and the skill level to compete for a championship.”
The current impediment to a MAAC title is Wagner; the Seahawks have won the past five championships and currently boast a 44-match winning streak against conference foes.
Besides facilities, the biggest hurdle for any polo program is recruiting. Alaimo said that attracting experienced international players to her school’s urban campus will be an important part of developing a winning program. LIU Brooklyn has experience with foreign-born athletes, and is confident they will continue to be drawn to one of the world’s great cities.
“Being in New York City is a real attraction for international students, but it becomes a financial decision for them and for us—the investment they can make and then us working with them financially to make it work,” Alaimo said.
However the next few months progress, the exciting opportunity is two water polo teams from Brooklyn battling for local bragging rights in the country’s biggest city.
“It will be great to have competition that we can literally walk down the street to go play,” St; Francis’ Husak said. “Our basketball teams have the ‘Battle of Brooklyn’ which draws huge crowds.
“It will be exciting to have a Battle of Brooklyn, water polo style.”
This article appeared in the July 2018 Swimming World Magazine Bi-Weekly