2018 Men’s Water Polo Preview: the Golden Coast Conference

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The Tigers celebrate 2017 GCC title—and hope for another this year. Photo Courtesy: Pacific Athletics

Swimming World continues its previews of the six conferences that will send teams to the 2018 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament, to be held November 29 – December 2 at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center. Look to SW for in-depth stories and game recaps of all the action from this year’s exciting NCAA men’s varsity action.

gcc-logo-apr-17Three years after its birth as an alternative to the mighty Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), the Golden Coast Conference (GCC) men’s water polo bracket retains its allure.

“We are excited for the third season of men’s water polo in the GCC,” Commissioner Mike Daniels said via email. “It was a great move for these six universities to come over to the conference and create the men’s division.”

Of course, great is relative—just ask Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC, the four Pac12 squads that remain in the MPSF and had to scramble to maintain their NCAA automatic qualifier. But the electric effect of five former MPSF men’s teams joining San Jose State to create a new haven for some of the country’s best polo still stirs the imagination.

Now, if parity between GCC members can be achieved, then the new entity’s transition will be complete. Pacific won the last GCC men’s title, and is favored for a repeat—unless a crop of newcomers at Long Beach State mature quickly enough to challenge the Tigers’ grip on the conference title and its NCAA tournament berth.

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Luke Pavillard—81 goals, 36 assists, 2017 GCC Player of the Year, 1st team All-American; finalist for the Peter J. Cutino Award—will be a junior this season, meaning that Pacific (#5 in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s pre-season poll).foes must endure two more season of the brilliant lefty from Perth, Australia. If Pavillard was all that Head Coach James Graham had in his lineup. the Tigers would still be a formidable opponent. Even after losing captain Ben Stevenson (47 goals, 42 assists), Kale Ai (44 goals) and Devon Thumwood (42 goals) to graduation, Pacific remains deep enough to again win the GCC. Depth is important consideration for this season and next, when UoP will hosts the 2019 Men’s NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.

Juniors Engin Ege Colak (68 goals) and Luis Araya (30 goals) return from a Tigers team that advanced to the program’s second-ever Final Four, dropping an 11-9 decision to eventual NCAA champs UCLA. Graham can also count on sophomore John Hedges (185 saves, 27 assists) in goal; if the Australian falters there are five other goalies on the Pacific roster.

November 30, 2017; Uytengsu Aquatics Center, Los Angeles, California, USA; Waterpolo: NCAA: UC Davis Aggies vs University of the Pacific Tigers; Pacific Utility Luke Pavillard guarded by UC Davis Attacker Colter Knight Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne- KLC fotos

Luke Pavillard, Pacific’s dominant lefty. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

11 freshmen are on the 2018 roster; most notable are: Bogdan Djerkovic, a 6-6 center from Ottawa, Canada; Ryan Trenev, a 6-5 center from Righetti High School and Aidan Jang, a lefty attacker from Rio Americano.

To paraphrase one pundit from the Water Polo Planet message board, Pacific used to be good every other year; now they’re good all the time.

Key Match-Up: Friday, November 2, vs. Long Beach State

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If the GCC is to be more than a one-horse conference, Long Beach State (#6 CWPA), thanks to a great recruiting year by Head Coach Gavin Arroyo, will have to grow up fast. Aaron Arias and Garrett Zaan—among the best of a young crop of U.S. national team players—are among six true freshmen who arrive this fall for the 49ers, as do foreign nationals Mathew Morris, a big left-hander from New Zealand, and Thodoris Pateros, who won FINA junior gold last month in Hungary with the Greek youth team.

But there’s more to LBSU than talented newcomers. Juniors Austin Stewart (52 goals)—an All-GCC Second Team selection—and Nemanja Bakic (40 goals) return, as does senior Austin Stevenson (27 goals).

Goalie Thomas Freeman (21 games started, 137 saves in 2017) is no longer with the team; sophomore Marwan Darwish and junior Kyle Alhart will fight to see who takes over in the 49er cage. Duncan Lynde (35 goals), a First-Team All-GCC honoree, graduated.

Youth will be the watch-word for Arroyo’s team in 2018, and if his team matures quickly enough, an upset may alter the GCC hierarchy.

Key Match-Up: Friday, September 21, vs. UCLA

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After a fast 11-1 start in 2017, Pepperdine (#8 CWPA), struggled the rest of the way, winning just 7 of its final 20 matches to end the season 18-14 and finish fourth at the GCC tournament.

Zack Rhodes, the Waves stellar goalie who was second in the conference with 325 saves, graduated last spring, leaving Head Coach Terry Schroeder to choose between Conrad Gordon, a transfer who appeared in five games last year for San Jose State, and a pair of red-shirt sophomores: John Claude Marco and Kyle McKenney.

Luckily, there’s no doubt about senior Marko Asic, who led the Waves with 68 goals in 2017. The 2016 GCC Player of the Year won’t be receiving any more passes from the now-graduated Mark Urban (45 goals, team-high 38 assists, 28 steals) but he will have one final season with senior center Christopher Dilworth (48 goals) and junior Mate Toth (34 goals).

Noteworthy newcomers include freshman Balazs Kosa, a member of the Hungarian Junior National Team, and freshman Jacob Watson of Oaks Christian High School; coached by Pepperdine alum Jack Kocur. Two years removed from winning the GCC’s inaugural men’s title, can the Waves roll into the conference’s NCAA berth?

Key Match-Up: Friday, October 5, vs. Long Beach State

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The Anteaters of UC Irvine (#9 CWPA), parlayed a conference-best season by goalie Matej Matijevic (329 saves, .639 save percentage) into a five-win improvement from 2016 and a berth in the 2017 GCC title game. Head Coach Mark Hunt’s charges simply couldn’t complete the rags-to-riches narrative, dropping a 9-5 decision to Pacific.

This season presents myriad challenges; after leading the Anteaters with 66 goals, Lore Milos graduated last season, one of seven seniors—and four All-American nominees—to complete their studies at UCI. A surprise departure was lefty Fynn Schuetze (38 goals), a promising freshman who returned home to Germany.

Byron Rivers, a fifth-year goalie, will look to slide into Matijevic’s spot in the Anteater cage. Jack Trush (20 goals) returns for his senior year, while newcomers Jason Evezard—a transfer from South Africa—and Zlatan Nikocevic, a 6-5 freshmen attacker from Serbia, arrived in Irvine this summer.

Key Match-Up: Friday, October 5, vs. Pacific

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UC Santa Barbara (#10 CWPA) will look to leapfrog UC Irvine—and others—in the GCC hierarchy, but the Gauchos will have to do it without All-American selections Reed Cotterill (23 goals) and Shane Hauschild (36 goals, 21 assists, 34 steals) who both graduated.

Head Coach Wolf Wigo’s roster sports senior Boris Jovanovic (31 goals, 12 assists), junior Ivan Gvozdanovic (24 goals) and sophomore Adam Lott (20 goals). Junior Justyn Barrios (136 saves) will likely make the bulk of starts in the Gaucho cage.

Key Match-Up: Friday, October 21, vs. Long Beach State

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In the typical Hollywood movie, against all odds the underdog hero emerges victorious. This is not yet the script for San Jose State (#14 CWPA). If it weren’t for the Spartans, the GCC would not exists, and in three years Bruce Watson’s reborn program has made great leaps forward; from 4 wins in 2015 to 7 in 2016 to 13 in 2017. Along the way, Watson has developed the skills of a number of impressive players. The problem is: they know all too well know the way from San Jose.

Case in point: Jacob Mercep. Last year’s freshman phenom (conference-leading 93 goals; All-America Honorable Mention) is this year’s USC Trojan. At least juniors Ben Hauschild (24 goals, 30 assists, 66 steals), Finn Pardon (34 goals) and goalie Todd Palmer (175 saves) should return this season. To hedge against the potential loss of players, Watson has recruited a number of foreign players: Adam Bado, Hungarian national team; Antonios Giannatsis of Greece; Yahav Fire, Israeli goalie; Nils Hofmeijer of the Dutch under-20 national squad and Utku Binkanat, a Turkish junior national team player.

In a script Spartan fans would eagerly green-light, this talent is around next year when San Jose State unveils a new pool—and perhaps a GCC title.

Key Match-Up: Friday, October 5, vs. UC Santa Barbara

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