In 1991, Ted Bresnahan became head coach of the water polo program at Johns Hopkins University. After winning 15 Division III Eastern championships, the team has become one of the East Coast's best.
The transformation was not without its growing pains. The Blue Jays posted a losing record during seven of Bresnahan's first 11 seasons.
Now, the team is recognized as a powerhouse that often beats Division I teams, including foes Navy, Princeton, Bucknell and George Washington.
In 2012, Hopkins won a school-record 25 matches with the help of three of 50 All-Americans Bresnahan has coached. Alex Whittam earned his fourth All-America accolade that year, becoming the second player in program history to accomplish such a feat.
The following year brought similar success, as the Blue Jays claimed their 15th Collegiate Water Polo Association Division III championship, finishing fifth during both the Southern and Eastern Division championships. The winner of the latter tournament has a chance to play in the NCAA men's water polo championship, one of the goals for Bresnahan and his players.
"I think this year's squad is able to have a good run and talented enough to do that," Bresnahan said. "It's like [college] basketball. When you have the Sweet 16, if somebody has a good run, they can beat a Kentucky or a Villanova. It's just how they're playing at that time and if you catch a good run."
The CWPA Division III championship begins Oct. 24, followed by the Southern championship Nov. 6 and the CWPA championship Nov. 20, which decides the Eastern representative at the NCAA tournament.
West Coast schools have dominated collegiate water polo for decades, as California, Stanford, UCLA and USC have combined for 41 NCAA titles. In fact, no school outside of California has finished better than third at the NCAA championships.
To catch up, Hopkins has recruited players from around the country. This season, 14 of the 19 players on the Blue Jays' roster are California natives. Playing games on the West Coast allows the Baltimore school to raise its profile in the sport's hotbed. Hopkins played a six-game stretch in the Golden State Sept. 30-Oct. 3.
"This California trip is a great opportunity to play some really good teams that are playing each other all year round," senior attack Langdon Froomer said. "And we kind of get to come in and show them what East Coast water polo and specifically what Johns Hopkins water polo is about."
Froomer, a Los Angeles native who was elected a captain by his teammates this season, leads Hopkins (12-6) with 38 assists. He's one of a bevy of experienced players who anchor the Blue Jays, who have been ranked in the top 20 this season.
"I've got five seniors that have been playing together, a lot of them that have started since their freshman year," Bresnahan said. "I think that this year, they're playing more as a team or better as a team than I've seen before."
Along with the familiar faces that have had their share of success in the program already, a talented freshman class arrived on campus this season, led by Giorgio Cico. The first-year player leads the team with 72 points.
"I didn't expect him to be where he is right now, but I knew what a great player he was," Bresnahan said of Cico. "I didn't really pay much attention to him toward the end of our recruiting year. I actually pulled up his tape, and I was like, ‘Wow, I missed this kid.' He caught my attention right away."
After compiling a 21-10 record in 2013, the Blue Jays took a step back last season and finished 14-13. Eight of the Blue Jays' 13 losses, however, were by two points or fewer, and the team is intent on improving its record in close games this season.
"We've worked a lot on that this year, trying not to get too focused on one- or two-goal swings and kind of just gearing up for a close fourth quarter regardless of how the first three quarters end up," Froomer said. "So we're really focusing on maintaining that close-game record."
The Blue Jays strive to be the top team in Division III each year, Bresnahan said, and in his 24 seasons at the helm, Hopkins has never lost a Division III matchup in its home pool. But aside from that, the Blue Jays' to-do list consists of narrowing the perceived margin between them and the Division I field, channeling the sport's West Coast fervor with an East Coast swagger.
"It's nice to show that a [Division III] program, with way less funding than a lot of these [Division I] programs, can come in and give them great games," Froomer said.