Water Polo Alumni Are Swimming Overseas For Success

In the span of four years, Marist water polo players Amanda Amorosa, Katherine Tijerina and Anais Mathis made it to the professional level. Each utility player signed with the same France-based team. 

Marist water polo flies under the radar of the college’s athletic programs, garnering little interest from the student body. Nonetheless, it flies as smoothly and successfully as any of the teams that call McCann Arena its home. The squad plays a smattering of nationally ranked teams in various tournaments every season, while staying in contention for the MAAC title.

One other mark of the program’s success is the recent trio of players — Amanda Amorosa, Katherine Tijrena and Anais Mathes — who continued their water polo careers after leaving Marist. All three utility players took their talents to Lille, France — a cityroughly 140 miles North of Paris, very close to the Belgian border — to play for Lille Metropolitan Water Polo Club, known as LUC Métropole Water Polo within the nation.

Through the connections he’s made throughout his water polo playing and coaching career, Marist head coach Chris Vidale serves as the link between his players and the next level of the game. He played at Iona College and for the Trinidad and Tobago National Team and coached for Iona, Greenwich High School in Connecticut, and the New York Athletic Club’s women’s water polo team, which features a roster heavily composed of Olympians.

Vidale and Lille Metropolitan head coach Philippos Sakelis know each other through Betsey Armstrong, a goaltender for Team USA in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games and Vidale’s wife. “I’ve kept in touch with the coach for a while,” Vidale said.

Amorosa, in July of 2017, was the first to go pro.

“I thought it was so cool that you could be paid to play water polo overseas and get that experience, but at the time I never thought I’d get to that level,” she said via email. “It was only after my senior season at Marist, where coach Vidale told me about this team in France did I really start considering it.” 

Grueling training regimens, two practices per day, and playing amongst more skilled and bigger players triggered second thoughts in Amorosa. Marist’s all-time leader in goals and assists wasn’t sure she belonged in the professional ranks at first.

“When I first got there I really didn’t think I would get a lot of playing time, but luckily I picked up on the system and I was able to play a lot,” she wrote. “I learned the system they played, and had to accept that it was different to what I had been used to. I improved my game sense and my game speed while playing abroad and getting international experience.”

Being so far away from her family for so long didn’t help. Amorosa’s family couldn’t even watch her play a good chunk of her games. Only European League contests were streamed. To keep her family updated with French League games, she would send newspaper articles that recapped those contests.

Although she already spoke French, the lay of the land was foreign to Amorosa. Luckily for her, she had a teammate from the Canadian national team play on the team before she did, so she had a reference for the team and the town.

“In the moment, I probably didn’t think I ever adjusted to it all,” she said. “But looking back I definitely did, and I grew a lot because of it.”

With Lille Metropolitan, Amorosa won two French League Championships and was a captain in her second and final season with the club. Playing professionally provided her with the experience that she uses to represent her country. Amorosa is now training with Water Polo Canada along with fellow Red Fox Myriam Lizotte, a junior utility player. 

Tijerina was the next to join the club, signing in June of 2019. Vidale said that, because she’s an undersized athlete, it took a little extra effort to get her noticed. “Coming from a place like Marist, you are a bit of an unknown at the same time. So I had to send film and get her in front of these coaches virtually,” she said. “Once people saw Katie play they were like, ‘Okay, we like her a lot.’”

Her speed and craftiness in the water served her very well, as did her ability to rack up steals. Tijerina is the only Red Fox with 200 total steals, ranks third in career assists and seventh in career goals.

Speed, in fact, is the most crucial factor in being able to play overseas, according to Vidale. Swim time is an indicator of readiness to play at both the Division I and professional levels, which he said is extra physical in Europe.

“The level is just faster, and it’s faster because everybody’s thinking two to three steps ahead always,” Vidale said. “So, if you’re struggling just to keep up with the flow of the game, your brain’s not gonna be able to keep up with the tactics side of it.”

Mathes, who signed with Lille Metropolitan in October of 2020 and remains a member of the team, explained that training at the professional level moves at a faster pace and the approach to the game is much more detail oriented.

“The style of play is different when it comes to tactics and the amount of time we put in to really perfecting the technique of passing, shooting, swimming, and jumping,” she said via email.

Mathes’ senior season in Poughkeepsie was cut short due to the pandemic. The San Diego, CA native weighed her options, including taking a fifth year of eligibility. Since she had already experienced Lille in a training trip, she already had some familiarity. Vidale’s connections made it easier for her to take the professional route.

Right away, Mathes made an impact on the team’s culture. “Once she got to Lille, [Sakelis] liked the way she played and he figured out how to use her and all that stuff,” Vidale said. “He says Ani’s superpower is how friendly she is and her personality…”

Having two college teammates come to Lille before her helped Mathes mentally prepare for the journey ahead. She also has two teammates that give her a sense of home away from home: Mia Rycraw, a California native who played at Arizona State, and Erica Hardy, who played at Wagner, one of Marist’s top rivals.

“It is so fun playing with her rather than against her,” Mathes joked.

Currently, Lille Metropolitan is undefeated and preparing for the playoffs, which begin in two weeks.

“I am learning a lot and have grown a lot as a player,” Mathes said. “Since being here I have been playing a very different position than what I was used to so I have learned so many new skills and tactics.”

The players aren’t scared of reaching out to Vidale for help. He said that typically when the players first get there, they reach out to him several times a week for a month. After they get acclimated to the team and the new living arrangements, back-and-forth communication occurs closer to once a month.

Vidale understands that the frequent instruction from Sakelis — which the players receive as a sign that they keep failing — is just a sign that he knows their talents and what they can do for the team. He and Sakelis talk frequently, so he knows both sides of the relationship between the new player and new coach.

The opportunity to get recognized by a professional water polo club is just a part of the Marist package, though. “I think for our kids, to be able to check a bunch of boxes at a place like Marist — get a good education, be close to a place like New York City, internship, study abroad and then have the opportunity to potentially play overseas professionally and still be able to scratch that itch of playing and see where they can take their water polo aspirations — I think is a win for us,” Vidale said.

A trifecta of professional athletes sprouting from Marist in just four years on the job — although he only coached Amorosa for one year — displays the success that Vidale and the water polo team can help prospective players reach. 

“It’s a good selling point to know that I, through my water polo experience and my coaching experience, I’ve built a little bit of a pipeline to Europe that they can take advantage of,” Vidale said. The transition going through that pipeline now offers guidance from three players with experience of it.

Edited by Dave Connelly

Photo Credit: Marist Athletics

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