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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Water polo pushes foward in title race

Pooja Bucklin ’27 winding up for a shot. Bucklin had eight goals against Washington and Jefferson College on March 23. Photo courtesy of Macalester Athletics.

 Macalester’s water polo team dominated the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) from 2017 to 2019, winning three consecutive titles and posting two undefeated records in-conference. In the four seasons since, the Scots have not reached the same heights, but this season could prove different. 

After starting the 2020 campaign with a 3-1 record in-conference, the COVID-19 pandemic ended their season less than halfway through their schedule, erasing all hopes of a fourth consecutive title. In 2021, the Scots went undefeated in a season that consisted exclusively of games against Carthage College. In 2022 and 2023, with the return of normal season play, the Scots went 4-4 in the CWPA both years, while posting losing records in non-conference play. 

This year, the Scots are off to a much stronger start, with a 3-1 record in the CWPA and an 8-4 record overall. On March 27, the CWPA posted their Week 10 polls, which had Macalester as second in the CWPA and seventh in the nation for Division III. 

“This season has definitely started better than some of the past seasons,” Head Coach Scott Reed wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “Instead of just relying on one or two players, we are leaning on everybody to make the big plays on offense and defense. To date, the team has definitely stepped up to the challenges and has been playing with a lot of confidence on both offense and defense, which is the main reason behind our success.” 

The Scots’ demonstrated their major improvement recently, when they hosted the CWPA Round Robin 1 tournament in Riley Pool from March 22 to 24 to open conference play. 

That weekend, the Scots claimed their 3-1 conference record, including a win over Austin College, a team that won the CWPA championship in 2022 and was runner-up in 2023. Prior to their matchup, the CWPA had Austin ranked above Macalester, but after a 12-11 Scots victory, Macalester claimed the second seed. 

“The opening weekend of conference play for us was a big confidence booster,” Reed wrote. “Our region in the conference is probably the toughest and to come away with three wins was a big success for this young team. The win against Austin was a big statement game and has definitely put the rest of the league on notice that Macalester will not be easy to get by.” 

Pooja Bucklin ’27 emphasized the Scots’ resilience and preparedness for the Austin game, which happened early on the morning of Sunday, March 24, after the Scots had played two games the day before.

“Those games could go either way, and it’s just who wants it more, and who’s able to battle through the soreness,” Bucklin said. “The Austin game was at 8 a.m., which was rather unfortunate, but we came out with so much energy. Before the game, we were all dancing to music on the pool deck — we all had our caffeine. We were like, ‘Okay, they’re also here at 8 a.m., we’ve just got to battle through it.’ And I’d say that was probably our best team play I’ve seen [from us].”

That weekend, the Scots also played Washington and Jefferson College, who are now 4-4 in the conference and ranked fifth in the CWPA. None of that mattered to the Scots, though, who produced their largest scoring output since 2021, beating the Presidents 20- 10. 

In that game, Bucklin scored eight goals, the most goals scored by a Scot in a single game since 2011 and putting Bucklin in a tie for the fourth-most goals scored in a single game in Macalester history.

“I was battling a sinus infection this weekend, so my meds finally started to kick in a bit; I was playing a little bit better,” Bucklin said. “I have a big mindset where I just want to take the game away early, because [in] the fourth quarter, everyone’s tired, and you don’t think as well. So, my goal is to just pound as many goals as early as possible. I was driving a lot, I was moving a lot, and that ended up creating a lot of space for me. Their goalie wasn’t one of their stronger players, so I was able to squeak in a lot of goals against her pretty easily.”

Bucklin’s performance that weekend earned her the CWPA Rookie of the Week, the second time in a row she has earned the honor this season. She currently leads the Scots this season in goals and assists. Reed emphasized the role of Bucklin’s teammates in aiding her transition to collegiate water polo and her subsequent excellence. 

“Pooja came to Macalester with quite a bit of game experience,” Reed wrote. “She has managed to adjust quickly to the college game. What has made this easy is that we have a team full of players that can score when needed, making it very difficult for opposing teams to just lock in on one player. Pooja’s teammates have been doing a good job getting her the ball for those scoring opportunities.”

Despite all the positive signs for the Scots as they opened conference play, they could not escape completely unblemished. In their final game of the weekend, Macalester lost to Augustana College (Illinois), the top-ranked team in the CWPA, who are 4-0 in-conference. The Scots’ offense stalled out against the Vikings, failing to score in the first half and finishing with a 4-14 loss.

“We kind of fell apart at the end of the weekend,” Bucklin said. “They have some really strong players, a really dominant set, and they have a really good goalie. I think that was in our heads a little bit too much. Next time, we know exactly what to expect. So, I think we will play them really close and maybe even dethrone them. They’ve had a winning streak for too long.”

The Vikings have a two-year history as a varsity squad in the CWPA. In their first year, they were championship runners-up, and in their second, they won it all, knocking Macalester out en route to the title. In all likelihood, the Scots will have to go through the Vikings if they hope to return to dominance this season.

“Where we currently sit in the standings, if we win the rest of our conference games, then we will secure the number two seed at conference championships,” Reed wrote. “We do this, then we are on a better path than what we had to go through in past conference championships.”

As the two seed, the Scots will not have to face Augustana until the final round of the CWPA DIII Championships, but to guarantee that spot, the Scots will have to win the rest of their games this season. This goal should be achievable, considering that they only have one top-five ranked team in the conference left to play. Reed’s philosophy for winning out is to keep it simple. 

“We take one game at a time, approach every game like it’s the championship game and never take anything for granted,” Reed wrote. “We have had some great success in the past, but this team knows in order to get back into that championship game, we have to strive to get better everyday knowing that every team we have to face will be doing the same thing. Always try to stay one step ahead! [Are we] there yet? Time will tell.”

The Scots have four games remaining in the regular season before they head to the conference championships. They will play those four games at Penn State Behrend in Erie, Penn. this weekend for the CWPA Regional Tournament 2. Ahead of those final games, Bucklin says that the team is emphasizing strategic play.

“You don’t have to nail a perfect shot, like upper-corner-bar-down; that’s always nice, but we’re working on a lot of cross paths,” Bucklin said. “It’s shifting the goalie and shifting the defense. If we’re able to read what the defense is doing, that’s going to set us up for success. It’s all about finding little openings.”

For their own defense, the Scots have worked hard all season. Their anchors are goalies Laurel O’Hare ’24 and Jayden Kratt ’26, who switch off from game to game. O’Hare and Kratt have saved 49% and 55% of their opponents’ attempted shots respectively, combining for a total of 115 total blocks.

“We are one of the few teams in the country that has the luxury of two goalkeepers of this caliber,” Reed wrote. “They have their own styles of play, and when we mix them from game to game, it makes it very difficult for opposing teams to plan ahead for games with us. Both are very capable of leading this team in any kind of pressure situation.” 

However, the Scots’ possible return to dominance does not rest on the shoulders of any single player. This team has seven players who have reached double digits in points (goals + assists) this season, five players with double-digit blocks and three with double-digit ejections drawn.

“This team’s success isn’t about one player,” Reed wrote. “Laurel and Jayden have been great in cage and Pooja has scored quite a bit, but Alana Nadolski [’26] got this offense started [early] on in the season, Kendall Coney [’25] has been a great physical presence in games drawing kickouts and Jess Palmer-Sammons [’26] has been a defensive nightmare for most opposing centers. This has been a truly special team so far this season.”

Even if the Scots do not win the CWPA DIII championship this season, they will still have a chance to make the NCAA DIII playoffs if they maintain their spot as the second seed in the conference. If they succeed, it will mark the first time in program history that the Scots compete in the national championships as they are configured today.

“I really expect this team to make nationals,” Bucklin said. “I think we would be really disappointed in ourselves if we didn’t. I could [also] see us coming over and beating Augustana. It’d have to be a really good game for us, but I think we definitely have that in us, and that would be really nice to finally get the Conference Championship back here … it’d be nice to get another banner in the natatorium.”


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