2018 Men’s Water Polo Preview: The Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

SCAIC men's water polo teams may see this again in 2018: Sagehens win! Photo Courtesy: Pomona-Pitzer 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.

Pomona-Pitzer has won the last two Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference men’s titles, twice advancing to the NCAA tournament. There’s no reason to think that the Sagehens won’t make it three-in-a-row, but competition from Chapman, Whitter—sporting a new head coach—and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps should make the SCIAC more than a one-team race in 2018.

SCIAC

According to Chris Attwood, the conference’s Assistant Executive Director, thanks to the coaches who vote on the Collegiate Water Polo Association pre-season poll, 2018 may be a banner year for SCIAC men’s water polo.

“We are very excited for a competitive 2018 season,” Attwood said by email. “We have very good teams from top to bottom as is evident in the fact that eight of our nine schools are ranked in the CWPA Division III Top 10 Preseason Poll, and the ninth is receiving votes in the poll.”

And, in a statement that would likely be echoed by many, he added: “We have dedicated, hard-working coaching staffs and student-athletes within the conference, and the level of competition in the pool reflects that.”

Only the top four teams in the conference will advance to their conference’s postseason; Pomona-Pitzer (#17 in the CWPA Preseason Poll) is a lock for a SCIAC tournament berth; the question is: who will fill the other three spots?

pomona

Opening up against #2 USC next Saturday starts the new season with a bang, but Pomona-Pitzer Head Coach Alex Rodriguez is not one to back down from a challenge. Scheduling his team’s opening weekend at the UCLA Invitational, which, in addition to the Trojans, will include matches against the host Bruins—2017 NCAA champions—and Fresno State is certain to kick-start what Sagehen faithful hope will be a memorable season.

Missing from the pool this September will be goalie Daniel Deimer. The 2017 ACWPC Player of the Year, who registered 244 saves in leading his team to a 13-1 record in conference play, graduated last spring. Junior James Kelbert (13 games; 59 saves in 2017) will step into the Sagehen nets, but it will be hard to replace the passion that Deimer—nicknamed “The Danimal”—brought to the pool.

The Danimal in action. Photo Courtesy: Andrea Gross

Luckily, all of the Sagehens’ top offensive threats from 2017 return this season. Adam Ward (team-high 47 goals) is now a senior; he’ll be joined in the rotation by juniors Jacob Niskey (36 goals, 12 assists, team-high 35 steals) and Joseph Schafer (41 goals, 20 assists); Ward and Niskey were selected for the All-SCIAC first team while Schafer was named to the second team.

Adam Gross (31 goals, team-high 47 assists) comes off a dynamic freshman season and will pair with the Sagehens other sophomores and the incoming class of 2022 to create a strong core of underclassmen, ensuring a continuation of dominance for Pomona-Pitzer.

Key Match-Up: Saturday, November 3 vs. Whittier

chapman

A 14-14 record in 2017—including a 10-4 mark in SCIAC play—was a great improvement for a Chapman squad that went 6-20 in 2016. The question for Head Coach Eric Ploessel is: can the Panthers find a way past the Sagehens and win the SCIAC?

If Chapman is to make it deep in their conference tournament, their compliment of 10 freshmen will need to mature quickly. This doesn’t mean Ploessel doesn’t have some returning depth, but there’s a lot of offense to replace. Senior Brady Hoskins (29 goals, 30 assists, 46 steals) and juniors Cameron Genetti (23 goals, 26 assists) and Hunter Ramaekers (11 goals, 33 assist) will need to offset the loss to graduation of Jeff O’Brien (76 goals, 20 steals – All-SCIAC first team), Kevin Dayan (59 goals, 39 assists, 62 steals) and Bennett Royce (34 goals, 29 assists)

Luckily, goalie Wesley Hertel (conference-high 246 saves; 23 games started) is back for his junior year. A hot goalie at the right time may be what it takes for the Panthers to take down the Sagehens and advance to their first-ever NCAA tournament.

Key Match-Up: Saturday, September 22 at Pomona-Pitzer

Whittier_logo

In some respects, Whittier drew the short straw to start their 2018 season. Next Saturday the Poets open against defending NCAA champion UCLA at Spieker Aquatics Center. A tough start and a coaching change last month—with David Kasa replacing Justin Pudwill, long-time Whittier men’s and women’s coach—suggests that this may be a transitional year.

But Kasa, with a wealth of experience at Long Beach City College, is not prepared for a rebuild. Plus, Pudwill—who steered his team to the SCIAC title match last year—left an abundance of talent in the Poet cupboard, including a pair of dynamic newcomers. Sophomores Hans Zdolsek (50 goals, 13 assists) and Carlos Heredia Viteri (team high 61 goals; 19 assists) will look to repeat dynamic 2017 campaigns. Last year Tim Aakhus, now a senior, chipped in 41 goals and 17 assists, and Murat Ersoz (202 saves, 9.19 GAA) enters his third season as a stalwart in the Whittier cage.

There will be little surprise if the Poets are in the SCIAC final for the fifth time in the last six year—and a new coach may be the difference maker in getting Whitter back to NCAAs for the first time since 2014.

Key Match-Up: Tuesday, October 16 at Chapman

redlands

Redlands Head Coach Tom Whittemore loses only one senior from 2017—but it was a big loss. Max Taylor was named to the 2017 Men’s Division III All-America Second Team; a two-time All-Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) selection, Taylor led the Bulldogs in goals with 54 goals and assist with 19 assists.

Looking to make up for this loss are seniors Mitchell Walker (29 steals), Grant Curry (33 goals) and sophomore Aaron White (30 goals) Goalie Chris Martinez now has a year of experience under his belt from a freshman season that saw him make 227 saves—second best in the conference. Junior Braeden Shaw is ready to step in if Martinez falters.

One interesting addition to the Bulldog family is Ryan Hall’s return to Redlands. After a year leading McKendree men’s polo, the class of 2008 Bulldog returns to Whittemore’s staff where he was an assistant from 2013-2016.

Key Match-Up: Thursday, October 4 vs. McKendree at the Gary Troyer Tournament

Claremont_Mudd_Scripps_Stags

Claremont-Mudd-Scripps had a remarkably successful year in 2017, going 9-5 in the SCIAC as part of a 14-15 season. Much of that success can be credited to a bold decision by Head Coach Greg Lonzo. In September, he replaced goalie Evan Pauletich in the Stags cage with defender Ethan Lewis. The 6-6 Hawaii native took over full-time duty on September 29, and—after an 8-7 loss to Cal Baptist—he and his teammates responded by winning four straight. The change was enough to get the Stags to the post-season for a ninth straight season.

The CMS coach will need to be creative to replace Noah Deer (57 goals) 1st Team All-SCIAC and Peter Tilton (20 goals, 18 assists) who were both lost to graduation. Junior Zack Rossman (55 goals, 18 assists) also made 1st Team All-SCIAC; he’ll be supported by junior Charlie Thomson and sophomore Christian Thornton among others.

But perhaps the most valuable player in the Stags’ line-up is their coach; if Lonzo continues his innovative ways, CMS should end up with yet another shot for their first NCAA berth since 2015.

Key Match-Up: Wednesday, October 24 vs. Redlands

cal_luther_kings

The past few season Cal Lutheran has been a good field, bad hit squad, likely due to goalie Nick Loomis. The now graduated Fullerton native registered 223 saves in 2017 and must be given credit for the Kingsmen’s noteworthy total of 258 goals allowed last season and 264 in 2016—best among SCIAC members.

Head Coach Craig Rond’s squad did hit for 291 goals in 2017 but it wasn’t enough to lift them into the postseason. Now they’ll need to compete without Loomis and top offensive threat Chris Gardhouse (59 goals, 23 assists, 33 assists), a 1st team DIII All-American. Both graduated last spring; seniors Mats Albins (21 goals, 21 assists) and Justin English (13 goals, team-high 25 assists) will look to step up on offense.

Sophomore Andre Rivas and senior Jake Venckus will battle it out for the Kingsmen goaltending duties; it will be very hard to replace Loomis—and this will be key to Cal Lutheran’s postseason hopes.

Key Match-Up: Wednesday, September 26 vs. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps

laverne

Last season La Verne relied on do-everything player Rey Julian Castillo (78 goals, 24 assists, 33 assists). For his exploits, the now-graduated Castillo—who led the Leopards in every offensive category—was selected for ACWPC Division III Second Team All-American.

This over-reliance had its drawbacks; Head Coach Pat Beemer—now in his second season at La Verne—will look to fix a team that scored 273 goals last season, among the worst offensive output among SCIAC squads. Only Caltech and winless Occidental scored less than the Leopards.

Now it’s up to senior Jason Russum (35 goals, 24 assists) and juniors Rex Sample (41 goals) and Joey Sabers (21 goals, 16 assists, 30 steals) to correct what may have been an offensive imbalance.

Defense is another story; last year Ian Hernandez (187 saves) patrolled the Leopard cage. Sophomore Brian Wilder will be given first crack to replace the now departed Hernandez as La Verne’s starting goalie job.

Key Match-Up: Saturday, September 22 vs. Cal Lutheran

caltech

Last season Caltech Head Coach Jon Bonafede had eight underclassmen on his roster of 13, and their inexperience showed. The Beavers went 8-16 in 2017, as they dropped 10 of their final 11 matches to finish 7th in the SCIAC. But the growth was there; after going 17 years without a conference win, the Beavers won twice in 2017, beating winless Occidental both time. Returning all but one player from last season—Richard May (4 goals) graduated last spring—the outlook for Caltech is brighter than it has been in many years—18 in fact.

Steven Csaposs (61 goals) is now a sophomore, and the talented center who earned All-SCIAC Second Team Honors in 2017 will lead a group of youngster who hope to continue rewriting the Beaver record books. Fellow sophomores Neil Sanderson (35 goals), Rahul Arun (team high 31 assists, 38 steals) and Alex Janosi (30 goals, 26 assists, 25 steals) will join senior Eshan Govil (37 goals) to improve Caltech’s offensive numbers; with 233 goals the Beavers were next to last among SCIAC teams.

In the Beaver net, junior Bradley Justice (119 saves) should get better with experience; perhaps they will be enough to move Caltech up the SCIAC ladder.

Key Match-Up: Saturday, September 29 vs. La Verne

occidental

Things are looking up with another SCIAC also-ran. Occidental was winless (0-27) in 2017, so there’s no place to go but up, and—with a new aquatics facility on the horizon and six freshman on the roster, Oxy Head Coach Jack Stabenfeldt has to believe that good things are on the horizon for his Tigers.

Junior Elijah Havens (40 goals) and senior Nicolas Lipari (20 assists) return for 2018, but the Tigers sustained two big losses. Two-way threat Matt Weiser (25 goals 79 saves), who was named ACWPC All-American Honorable Mention, was lost to graduation, as was Brett Luch (30 goals).

Defense was by far the biggest liability for Occidental in 2017, as the Tigers gave up a SCIAC-high 413 goals—almost 100 more than Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (322). Henry Grove, a freshman from Willow Grove, PA, will slip into Oxy’s nets, while newcomers Hayden Comerford, Cian Concannon, Jasper Lee, Wilson Noll and Jason Teng will don the Tigers’ orange and black and look to get their team into the win column in 2018.

One sign that the future is indeed brighter; Occidental was ranked 10th in the CWPA 2018 Men’s Varsity Division III Top 10 preseason poll—the one SCIAC omission was Caltech.

Key Match-Up: Friday, October 5 vs. Penn State-Behrend at Gary Troyer 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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