2018 Men’s Water Polo Preview: the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation

Can the rest of the MPSF live through another Bruin title?! Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

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.

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The Mountain Pacific Sports Federation men’s water polo bracket is the largest collection of top-notch water polo players in the country. MPSF teams have won every NCAA championship since the federation’s inception in 1992. Whoever wins the conference title usually wins the national title (not always); three MPSF teams annually get in to the NCAA tournament, and two of them will be the #1 and #2 seeds. By all statistical measures, MPSF men’s water polo is by far the best intercollegiate competition that there is.

And it’s changing.

“In 2018, the MPSF welcomes Austin College to the conference in the Kangaroo’s inaugural season of men’s water polo,”Commissioner Al Beaird said in an email to Swimming World. “The MPSF is proud to help develop the collegiate side of the sport in the relatively untapped state of Texas.”

The addition of Austin College to the roster of MPSF teams is an important step for American water polo. It’s also key to the conference’s long-term viability, Beaird has now successfully rebuilt membership—if not the caliber of competition—after Long Beach State, Pacific, Pepperdine, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara fled to form the Golden Coast Conference men’s bracket with San Jose State.

Austin’s membership, along with Penn State Behrend, makes six MPSF teams—which preserves the conference’s automatic qualification to NCAAS

“I fully anticipate that the MPSF will continue to provide the most competitive and best collegiate men’s water polo in the nation with Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC ranked in the top-4 spots,” Beaird wrote. “2018 should be another outstanding year for MPSF water polo, hopefully culminating with another NCAA champion.”

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The Trojans (#2 Collegiate Water Polo Association pre-season poll; #2 MPSF pre-season poll) of USC have been to an incredible 13 straight NCAA finals; given their moves in the off-season it’s extremely likely Jovan Vavic’s squad will be in the championship match again. Hannes Daube, a member of the U.S. National Team and arguably the top freshman in the country, will be joining the men of Troy this fall. Other notable freshmen are Sam Krutonog—one of the country’s top goalie prospects—Jake Ehrhart from Oaks Christian High Schoo, and James Kolenda of Australia, both top 2M men.

Perhaps more noteworthy are transfers to Southern California; Sawyer Rhodes, a top lefty for Stanford as a freshman last year (23 goals); and Jacob Mercep, a scoring machine (93 goals) for San Jose State in 2017.

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Jacob Mercep; last year Spartan, this year Trojan. Photo Courtesy: Terrell Lloyd

There’s also returning talent including junior Matt Maier (25 goals; All-American) and sophomore Marko Vavic (team-leading 51 goals; All-American).

But all is not well in Troy; McQuin Baron (all-time USC saves leader) is gone; Vavic has five goalies on his roster. Blake (46 goals) and Lachlan Edwards (33 goals) are also graduated. Olympian Thomas Dunstan (20 goals) is not on the roster. The Trojans have a lot of firepower and should again win the MPSF title and qualify for NCAAs; one consideration: they are 6-7 in those finals and have lost the last four in a row.

Key Match-Up: Saturday, October 6, at Stanford

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Last year, UCLA (#1 CWPA; #1 MPSF) lost nine players and still found a way to win its third national title in four years. So predicting the end of their dominance in MPSF play is a dicey proposition. There’s also some very good reasons to be bullish on the Bruins. Freshman sensation Nicolas Saveljic (45 goals) returns for his sophomore season and should be a powerhouse in Head Coach Adam Wright’s offense. The Montenegrin will be assisted by fellow sophomore Chasen Travisano (26 goals) and a trio of talented newcomers; Jake Cavano, Michael Graner and Ash Molthen.

But the real difference-maker is in the UCLA cage. Junior Alex Wolf—21 starts; 193 saves; 6.98 goals against; 2017 NCAA Finals MVP—played impressively for Team USA in this summer and is arguably the top goalie in the country. Defense has always been a hallmark of Bruin polo, and this must be a strength if UCLA is to win the MPSF. Three key contributors in 2017—Max Irving (40 goals), Alex Roelse (35 goals) and Matt Farmer (29 goals)—graduated last spring.

Wright is carrying 19 underclassmen on his extended roster; it may turn out that this is not the Bruins’ year as they retool for the future.

Key Match-Up: Saturday, November 10, at USC

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Stanford (#4, CWPA; #4 MPSF) has a lot to play for in 2018—but that could be said every year. The Cardinal have been fighting a postseason drought, and now like the perfect opportunity to break a streak that has lasted three long years. The NCAA tournament will be held at Avery Aquatics Center, John Vargas’ team has retained its two top scorers, and the freshman talent that has descended upon Palo Alto is impressive indeed.

Sophomore Ben Hallock (team-high 56 goals; good for second in the MPSF) was a well-deserved choice as 2017 MPSF Newcomer of the Year. Hallock—already an Olympian—spent a productive summer with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team, which will only make him better. Senior Blake Parrish (38 goals) also returns, as do juniors Bennett Williams (28 goals) and Dylan Woodhead (8 goals)—who will be joined by his brother Quinn, a talented freshman from the Bay Area.

Jackson Seybold, who last fall won a CIF Division 1 title with Mater Dei High School, is one of the top young players in California. Twin brothers Spencer and Wyatt Hanson—like the Woodheads graduates of nearby Sir Francis Drake High School—are part of a group of seven Cardinal newcomers who have no connection to the NCAA drought

But the Cardinal have to negotiate a number of losses from last season. Drew Holland (184 saves) was a 2nd Team All-MPSF selection. His back-up Andrew Chun only saw action in seven games, but he’s still among the more experienced goalies in the conference. A trio of scorers—Cody Smith (35 goals), Connor Stapleton (32 goals) and Jackson Kimbell (30 goals)—also graduated. But the biggest hit was Sawyer Rhodes’ defection to MPSF rival USC.

One of the conference’s biggest losses was a net gain for Stanford; Luca Cupido, 2017 Cutino Award winner, has graduated; he single-handedly wrecked the Cardinal last season. Without their arch-nemesis and strong seasons from Hallock, Parrish, Seybold, Williams, Quinn Woodhead—and in particular, Chun—Vargas’ troops should be competing in the NCAAs at home.

Key Match-Up: Saturday, November 10, at Cal

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Do not weep for the Golden Bears if they don’t make NCAAs in 2018; they’ve won the most men’s national titles in the country (14), and can afford to sit one out. But, don’t bet against Cal (#3 CWPA; #3 MPSF) either; in 2016, they came from the fourth seed to stun first #2 UCLA and then #1 USC to win their program’s most recent national title.

Despite losing Cupido (MPSF-high 58 goals), the 2017 National Player of the Year, Kirk Everist’s offense should be sound. Seniors Johnny Hooper (47 goals; 1st Team All-American) and Odysseas Masmanidis (40 goals; 2nd-Team All-American) return along with juniors Spencer Farrar and Safak Simsek (26 goals each). On the other side of the ball, Nikos Delagrammatikas, an accomplished center defender, is back for his second year, as is fellow second-year defender Ryan Hurst.

This season Everist has seven true and three red-shirt freshmen; the most prominent are Marko Valecic, a 6-4 utility man who was on the Croatian Junior National Team, and Kaan Guzgeg, another 6-4 player who is on the Turkish National Team. Joe Molina, from Foothill High School, was a member of the Cozy Boys 2018 JO champs in the 18U Platinum bracket.

It’s in the Cal cage that problems may arise. Junior Spencer Tagg (73 saves) takes over from the now-graduated Kevin Le Vine; if he’s not up to the job Everist has junior Bernardo Carelli and two freshmen—Sam Murphy and Anthony Rethans—that he can sub in.

It’s no sure thing that Cal will be one of the three MPSF qualifiers for 2018 NCAAd, but it’s never wise to underestimate the Golden Bears.

Key Match-Up: Saturday, November 3, at USC

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It’s easy to question why Penn State-Behrend is in the MPSF, but Head Coach Joe Tristan believes that his program is able to draw California talent to his northwestern Pennsylvania campus. Goalkeeper Matt Olimski (246 saves; tops in the MPSF) is from San Diego, and three freshmen—Austin Hoff, Dario Gonzalez and Collin Holmes—are from the Golden State.

Senior Kyle Frerichs (20 goals) and junior Isaak Hatopp (14 goals), return as the Lions, playing mostly regional opponents from Pennsylvania and Ohio, look to improve on a 6-15 record in 2017. Challenges for the Lions: leading scorer Grant Garcia (36 goals, 31 steals) did not return, and Troy Valkusky (29 goals; 2nd on the team) graduated.

Key Match-Up: Sunday, September 9, vs. CalTech at Mercyhurst Invite

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It’s all brand new for Austin College, but this is not Head Coach Mark Lawrence’s first time running a program. He led MIT for two season and has worked at some of the top college programs in the country. The Kangaroos—who last season played club ball—don’t have a record to evaluate. Goalie Andrew Pomier and defender Robert Griffin are sophomores who are projected as key starters after club level success. There are 19 Texans on Lawrence’s roster; a huge boost to polo in the Lone Star State.

Whatever happens during the 2018 season, the larger issue is who Austin can regularly compete against. An abbreviated 15-match schedule is built around trips to the East and West Coasts; it may be a couple of seasons before the Kangaroos play a home match (and it will likely be an invitational that the college hosts).

Like Penn State-Behrend, Austin will travel to USC for the MPSF Tournament and will play the Lions as well as the #3 and #4 seeded teams. Just getting to Los Angeles in November will be a crowning achievement for the Kangaroos’’ maiden voyage in NCAA varsity polo.

Key Match-Up: Friday, November 16, vs. Penn State-Behrend, MPSF Tournament

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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