The first ever NCAA Division III water polo championships will take place this fall according to USA Water Polo, which made the announcement on Tuesday. The national governing body for water polo will serve as the event’s main sponsor and has been working with DIII institutions for several years to bring the event to life. Nearly 20 teams will vie to qualify for the inaugural men’s championship this fall, including Austin College in Sherman, the first NCAA program in the state since Texas A&M ceased its men’s program in 1978.
The ‘Roos women will compete for a shot at the women’s tournament debuting in the spring of 2020.
John Abdou, USA Water Polo’s Chief High Performance Officer, said in an email to collegiate coaches that the championship will address long-standing concerns about the game by serving as “a stabilizer for current programs to retain their varsity status” and a “catalyst” for new programs.
In recent years the sport has experienced fits of growth and decline at the varsity level. Now at its highest overall numbers ever with 49 men’s and 66 women’s varsity teams, the game has recovered from it’s nadir in the mid 90s when women’s water polo had not yet achieved varsity status and the number of men’s teams dropped to 37. Sports with fewer than 40 programs are considered under strong threat of abandonment by the NCAA.
Recent growth has largely taken place at the Division III level with Austin College joined by Monmouth (IL), Wittenberg, and Millikan in establishing new programs within the past several years. Some of that growth can be attributed to the new championship tournament, according to USA Water Polo, which called the event an “opportunity for a meaningful postseason competition in addition to offering an incentive for other Division III institutions to add the sport.”
The tournament will kick off in December with two men’s teams from Austin College’s conference, the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA), and two from the SCIAC (Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) placed in a four-team bracket. The same format will apply to the women’s tournament in May of 2020. The SCIAC will host both men’s and women’s competition in the 2019-20 academic year, after which it will rotate annually to other locations.
An earlier version of this post contained errors in the number of current NCAA varsity water polo programs. Since corrected.