The Michigan State women’s water polo club team won the Big Ten Conference April 14, its first win in more than a decade.
The Spartans have not won a Big Ten Conference Tournament since 2006. For team members Jilian Eiken, Leslie Schuchardt and Sarah Daugherty — who also serve as president, vice president and treasurer, respectively — this was an amazing feeling.
Co-captain Eiken, a hospitality business senior, explained her feelings after the win.
“Pretty indescribable feeling, honestly,” Eiken said. “We really felt like with this team, we had something special. ... Being a senior, all the girls I’ve played with before, all these years — they’re all my really good friends. It wasn’t just for our team, but for all those people who came before us. We finally won the Big Ten Conference.”
Eiken described water polo as basketball in water, with a soccer net and the physicality of hockey. Players are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool and must tread or swim the entire time.
“Sometimes they don’t know the full extent of just how difficult water polo is,” Eiken said. “The first thing people ask me is, ‘Can you touch the bottom?’ and I’m like, ‘No, you swim the whole time.’”
Not everyone on the team has been playing their entire life. Some started when they came to college, which Eiken said makes the team different from other sports teams on campus.
“That’s what’s so nice about (being a) club; we’re very inclusive about everyone, we don’t do cuts,” Eiken said. “ Whether you’ve been playing for 10 years like I have, or rather this is your first time ever playing, we include everyone.”
Eiken has been playing water polo since she was 9-years-old on her local park team. Daugherty, a senior studying mechanical engineering, has been playing since her freshman year of high school. Schuchardt, a chemical engineering junior, has been playing since eighth grade.
“(It’s) definitely a balance, but I think doing sports in high school teaches you how to time-manage,” Daugherty said. “Definitely worth it, very manageable, but some days are harder than others.”
Schuchardt said she is enjoying playing and being on the club’s executive board.
“Being on the board and being the VP is really cool because I get to see the back of what goes into being a club sport here at MSU,” Schuchardt said. “We’re completely self-funded and we have to fundraise a lot.”
Winning the Big Ten was a shock for Daugherty since this was her first, she said.
“I don’t think it really hit me right away,” Daugherty said. “I’ve never won a championship before. I never did in high school, this is our first in college.”
The team was the top seed going into the tournament. The first team they played was the University of Michigan.
“We played their B team. ... The score was 11-5,” Eiken said. “The most important one — in the final — we played (U-M’s A team) and we beat them 9-5. I’ll never forget that score.”
After winning the Big Ten Conference Tournament, the team advances to the national competition held at the University of Notre Dame from May 3 to May 5.
“I have high hopes for our team with placing well,” Schuchardt said. “I think that’s going to be a really fun tournament, and I’m really excited to be there with my team.”
Eiken and Daugherty are both graduating seniors, which means their journey as captain and co-captain is coming to an end. Both are unsure if water polo is in the futures, but Water Polo Masters teams — nationwide teams for those interested in continuing to play at a competitive, high level — are something they are considering.
“I am searching for jobs now, so I’m not exactly sure where I’ll be, but I could see doing a Masters team, but probably not as competitive as what’s going on now,” Daugherty said.
Eiken is moving to Las Vegas and has already found a Masters team she is looking into. Her goal is to stay in the water and stay active.