1964 Loughlin Lions Made Quite the Splash in Water Polo

Following their improbable victory in the 1964 AAU Junior National Championship Tournament, the Bishop Loughlin H.S. water polo team received citations from Brooklyn Borough President Abe Stark. (Photo: Courtesy of Dennis Christy)

Water polo could be considered the ideal sport. It combines aspects of basketball, football, hockey, and of course swimming into highly competitive matchups in the pool. Unfortunately, none of the diocese’s Catholic high schools field water polo teams, but that wasn’t always the case. In the early 1960s, swimmers at Bishop Loughlin H.S., Fort Greene, started their very own water polo club program.

Lions swimming coach Harry Benvenuto — who also coached water polo at Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute – threw a ball into the pool one day, not knowing that doing so would have a lasting impact on a group of young men who have remained friends to this day.

Of the 10 players on the team, none of them played water polo in their youth. However, they were all gifted swimmers who were eager to learn this exciting new sport. It also helped that the Brooklyn YMCA, located only a few blocks from Bishop Loughlin, had a pool that the team could train in five days a week.

From their humble beginnings as a group of swimmers, the Lions morphed into an unstoppable juggernaut in the pool. What made this ascent that much more impressive was that this team of high schoolers would often play — and beat — collegiate and club water polo teams consisting of players in their mid-20s and early-30s.

How exactly was that even allowed? Well, the sport itself was not officially sanctioned by Bishop Loughlin, though the school promoted the team and its successes very well. Instead, the Lions played whoever they could whenever they could.

In addition to defeating the likes of Yale University and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the crowning achievement for this group came in the spring of 1964, when the Lions won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Junior Water Polo National Championship at the University of Pennsylvania after winning seven matches in three days.

That was 60 years ago, and yet the former student-athletes, who were seniors at the time, can recall specific details of that tournament like it was yesterday. The Lions beat the Northern Virginia Aquatic Club, 10-8, in the semifinals ahead of a close 7-6 victory over the previously unbeaten New York Athletic Club (NYAC) ‘B’ Team to capture the national title.

What made this group of high school athletes think they could compete with grown men who were much more physically developed than they were? Maybe it’s simple: Deep down, they believed that they could do it, so they did.

“It really was quite astounding and bizarre,” said Bill Harris, the team’s center and co-captain. “There’s no way that we should have been beating these guys, but we played together as a team. It was probably one of the best teams I was on.”

Originally from Our Lady of Good Counsel parish in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harris, along with several members of the team, continued playing water polo at St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, where the Terriers won an unprecedented four consecutive Eastern College Water Polo Conference championships.

In 1997, he was inducted into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame and now serves as the associate head coach of Fordham University’s men’s water polo team.

Harris’ brother-in-law, Tom Walsh, was the Lions’ goalie — and a great one at that. He was a formidable presence in goal — a tenacity he developed playing youth sports at St. Margaret in Middle Village. Walsh, who also played at St. Francis College, cited teamwork as the means for this team to pull off the improbable, which included going up against men who outweighed them by more than 50 pounds each.

“Everybody had a role, and everybody did their role,” Walsh said. “We got more and more proficient as we went along. We clicked, that’s all. You look back at it in retrospect, and we were just little boys, but we got better and better and started picking off victories. It was a good run.”

From Sacred Heart parish in Glendale came Dennis Christy, an elite swimmer who played driver for the Lions team. Although he wasn’t too fond of water polo at first, he grew to love the sport once he learned the rules and settled in with his teammates.

Christy, also a St. Francis College water polo alum, eventually spent 51 years as a full-time math professor at Nassau Community College and is now back as an adjunct after retiring in 2020. Even as a numbers guru, he’s still unsure how the numbers added up when looking back at this Loughlin squad.

“All of us have said — even to this day — we don’t know how it’s possible that we could beat West Point and Yale and these AAU clubs,” Christy said. “I think the main explanation is that we just had this unique synergy and chemistry. Each of us had a strength, and we made sure we put those people in the right positions. There was something so special about this.”

The legend spread far and wide — so much so that the entire team was invited to participate in the 1964 U.S. Olympic trials. For Harris, Walsh, Christy, Jim Mottle, Ken Schreifels, Ed Haggerty, Charlie Gulotta, Jim O’Neill, Dennis Flynn, and Jim Quinn, playing on this team was truly a life-altering experience.

For a bunch of high school swimmers who never played water polo to win a junior national title within a four-year timeframe, that’s a moment that still inspires 60 years later. There really must have been something in the Brooklyn water.

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