The ballad of a bad loser: a water polo story

Cam Newton playing water polo.|Submitted photo by USA Water Polo

I took a lot of losses this week. Too many losses.

I’d lay out every single one of them out for you in detail, but I think college kids do this thing where we complain a lot to prove we have it worse than the person next to us. Like it’s a badge of honor to be the most miserable person we know. We love telling everyone about how much work we have – five tests in three days, 70 clinical hours in two days, 35 hours of work this week, or five bible studies to prep for.

At a small, Christian school like Union University, it’s easier to be involved in a bunch of things because less people are fighting for the same opportunities. So a lot of us do a lot of things and two or three weeks into a semester, the complaint competitions start. I do it too. I’m trying to stop.

But… I lost my fantasy football match-up and got knocked out of the playoffs by my roommate, had a lot of schoolwork, was forced to shave my beard for the first time in three years, got some kind of cold or flu, had to apply for a competition I know I won’t win (it was a journalism competition and my writing style doesn’t fit their rubric) and I lost my fourth water polo championship game.

Sorry I’m not very good at taking my own advice, but I held back some of the other things that also went poorly this week. (Sorry. I’m done complaining for real now.)

Water polo is a sport played at Union after Thanksgiving break each year. Normally, the players in the “field” (the pool) can’t touch the bottom, which makes the game more difficult and requires the players to be in peak physical condition. At Union, we play in the shallow end of the pool using tiny nets and a volleyball because none of us have ever played “real” water polo and we’d die if we tried.

I enjoy water polo at Union because I was on the swim team for two years in high school, so I know how to move in the water better than the average joe. This doesn’t mean I’m good though. According to Union’s rules, you can’t knock the ball out of other players’ hands, so the game lends itself to bigger people who can throw the ball hard and can force the way up the field to score.

I’m a pretty tiny guy— 5’11’’ and maybe 140 pounds— so water polo shouldn’t be my best intramural, but I’ve always been pretty scrappy, so I’m not terrible. Not because I love winning, but because I hate losing. If I think there is even a small chance I could win at something, I legitimately get angry if I lose.

Being a bad loser runs in my family. My dad forced our family to play a certain card game every night after dinner for two months until he beat my sister, who always won. Once he beat her, he didn’t want to play ever again. He did the same thing to me when I was in sixth grade with Super Mario Baseball on the GameCube. My little brother unplugs gaming consoles when I’m beating him and my older sister pouts the entire time we play a board game if she thinks she can’t win.

My scrappiness didn’t really manifest itself until I played rec league basketball in high school. At 5’9’’ and 110 or 115 pounds, I played as the center because our team’s tallest player was too soft. I usually matched up against 6’3’’ 200+ pound kids and had to figure out how to not get killed each time. The solution was simple— I had to get angry and genuinely convince myself to dislike my opponent so much that fouling or hitting them didn’t bother me the way it should have.

At Union, it’s harder for me to turn completely into this version of myself because most people are actually kind and intramurals is only serious to a point. Also, if you hit a kid in a game on Tuesday night, you’ll probably see him walking the halls the next morning, so there’s no escaping a mistake like that.

Water polo was perfect for me though. Because I’m not a big guy, I’m allowed to get away with more than most people. I’ve played it every year I can because it is surprisingly fun, partially because no one knows what they’re doing at first, so no one is dominant. My team came in second place the last three years, with Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) winning each time, which frustrated me to no end. (Not because they won, but because I lost). This year, I hoped my team could finally break through the glass ceiling and give me my first intramural championship in any sport. (I’ve come in second or third a good bit though. Not that it matters, but it does.)

This year, I had to pin my hopes of winning on a squad of guys younger than me — mainly Jeff Williams. He’s one of the best water polo players to grace a Union pool in a while. The best ever, in my opinion, was alumna Andrew Parks, who once scored five goals in a half — typically, there are only five to seven goals a game — and required teams to double him every time he touched the ball. Standing at 6’2’’ and 220 pounds, Williams has the size necessary to bully smaller defenders and stop bigger guys but still moves well in the water.

On Thursday, December 1, we played the water polo championship game against SAE. The other team started a big lineup— the goalie and two of the guys in the field were average-to above average sized but athletic, except for Landon Ross, who played football for Centre College last year, and was listed at 6’3’’ 207 pounds. SAE had their two ringers, Elijah Fletcher—6’7’’ and 220 pounds— and Alec Stackley—6’6’’ 275 pounds. These guys aren’t just big bodies, they can play.

Fletcher is left-handed which creates problems because he goes to left and either throws it really hard right over his defender or throws a sidearm that hums low and right by the defender. His size and length also makes it hard to score on him.

Stackley is a great physical presence that can play both ways as well. SAE used primarily as a defender during our first game, but he knows how to score too.

These guys are impossible for a shrimpy dude like me to score on or defend, so I knew I was going to have to sit for at least the first half, probably the whole game.

“Guys, we’ve got to be physical in this game, score early and get back on defense every time,” I said before the game. “Use your legs under the water if you have to on defense… the refs can’t see it.”

I spent the entire first half twisted up in anxiety as the first minutes went scoreless, and then we went on a run. We were up 4-1 at the half, thanks to Williams, Avery Teague, an über athletic kid with a strong frame, and Alex Northcutt— a sweet-shooting sophomore. Northcutt is not much taller and doesn’t seem much heavier than me (he probably is 20 pounds heavier, though; I usually forget how small I really am) and is everything I would hope to be on the floor—scrappy and incredibly skilled. Northcutt can hang on defense, nail floaters and throw accurate shots due to his time as a sharpshooting guard in high school basketball.

The second half was a different story. We decided to stay aggressive and try to score even more, but instead gave them the ball more and allowed them to make a comeback. They eventually got up 5-4 when Stackley made it to the middle with the ball and let a sidearm shot rip. Caleb Morgan, our goalie, didn’t have time to react.

We tied it up and hoped to send the game to overtime when Stackley got the ball again. He made his way to roughly the same spot with guys hanging onto him, trying to stop him, and he fired another for the final score. It was beautiful and incredibly clutch. There was nothing we could have done to stop him once he got into that zone.

As time ticked away, SAE passed the ball around to run the clock out. I was so upset at that point I wanted to go in to be a goon and hit some guys or knock the ball away. Maybe I could force a turnover like that. I didn’t go in, though—I just sat in the corner of the pool, simmering with anger.

Regardless of the fact that the other team was better than us, I was upset about losing. As people who came to support my team or congratulate us on our attempt, I put my giant beach towel over my head so I wouldn’t have to respond at first. It felt really good and I understood why Cam Newton or any player uses the towel to hide after losses in that moment.

But people at Union don’t let you get away with that — kids I didn’t even know told me I played well and I thanked them because that’s what you do.

“I’m sorry we didn’t let you play, man,” Williams said as we dried off.

I told him it was okay because I couldn’t have matched up well with their size, but I was angry and a little hurt that I didn’t play at all. I told them my idea about stopping them from running the clock out by intentionally fouling to hope for a turnover we could use. People said it was smart and I got even angrier.

As I put dry shorts on afterward, I realized my team did me a service by not playing me. My strategy wouldn’t have worked, it would have only made me feel better. It would ultimately cause more harm than good because it wouldn’t change the outcome and I wouldn’t have just looked like a jerk – I would be a jerk.

It’s all right to want to win, and I still believe there should be a great effort in trying to do well at all things. There’s a line though, where the will to win becomes desperation to not lose—the fear of failure.

About Caleb Lay 40 Articles
Caleb Lay, class of 2016, is the sports editor of the Cardinal & Cream. He is a journalism major from Paducah, KY. Caleb enjoys running, music, film, and sports.