2019 Swimming World Men’s Water Polo Previews: Golden Coast Conference

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Long Beach State celebrating the 2018 GCC Men's Water Polo title. Photo Courtesy: Stephen Dachman / The 562.org

There’s an intriguing mix of men’s water polo programs in the Golden Coast Conference. There’s Pacific, which—until derailed in last year’s conference final—had won back-to-back GCC titles (2016, 2017) behind a pair of foreign players. Then there’s Long Beach State, which has drawn in a core of ex-Huntington Beach High School players, and is now looking at their own two-peat after upsetting the Tigers in the 2018 GCC title match.

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Throw in a resurgent UC Santa Barbara program, Pepperdine—led by Olympic legend Terry Schroeder—UC Irvine with one of the younger line-ups in collegiate polo and San Jose State, fighting for respectability after a program re-launch five years ago, and the GCC may be the most competitive water polo conference in the NCAA this season.

After the dust of the season settles, it will be the 49ers, boasting some of the country’s best young American players, that advance to NCAAs for a second-straight season.

Editor’s Note: Rankings in parentheses indicate results of the 2019 Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Preseason Poll

LBSGavin Arroyo might be the most versatile coach in NCAA men’s polo. An accomplished college player who made a living crisscrossing Europe as a professional, Arroyo is one of the top assistants to Dejan Udovicic, U.S. National Team head coach. Arroyo is also the 49ers men’s and women’s coach, leading one to wonder: When does he ever take a break?

As far as Long Beach State (#5T) fans are concerned: never!

Last year, after a painfully slow start with a squad containing 15 underclassmen, including nine true freshmen, the 49ers caught fire, winning six straight matches—including beating Pacific twice—to lock up their first NCAA berth since 1991. A catalyst of this run was freshman Garrett Zaan. A strong performer for the U.S. Junior Team, Zaan delivered 25 goals in 2018, and is perhaps responsible for more largess: former Oiler teammates Quinten Osborne (via UCLA) and Ethan Wojciechowski (via Cal) will join Zaan this fall to bolster an offense that netted 261 goals last year.

Arroyo also brought in Rafael Vergara—a young talent for the Brazil national team—as well as goalie Liam Ward. In addition to Zaan, returning 49ers include Austin Stewart, who led the team with 56 goals and 12 assists, Johnathan Wong (22 goals) and Theodoros Pateros (17 goals). Also returning: goalie Marwan Darwish. MVP of last year’s GCC final, Darwish (184 saves) has become a difference-maker in the 49er cage.

Key Match-Up: California, Sunday, November 3, Long Beach, CA

pacificThough they may have been unceremoniously dumped as conference champs, Pacific (#5T) is far from done at the top of the GCC. A two-year, eight-match winning streak in conference play was snapped by LBS last season, but the core of Head Coach James Graham’s highly successful squad remains intact.

Two-time GCC Player of the Year Luke Pavillard (78 goals, 29 assists), Engin Ege Colak (66 goals) and Luis Araya (41 goals, 41 assists) all return for their senior years in Stockton. They’ll be joined by Andrea De Nardi (23 goals) and Eli Lule (13 goals, 19 assists) as well as a couple of impressive newcomers. Djordje Stanic contributed 40 goals and 20 assists at St. Francis Brooklyn last year, while Jeremie Cote was a sharpshooting scorer for Canada in the recent Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.

[Long-Time Dreams Collide At 2019 Pan American Men’s Water Polo Final]

One substantial change for Pacific will be in goal, as sophomores Jon Barry and Joey Maclean will battle freshman Lewis Gale for starting netminder duties. John Hedges—who made the majority of starts (17) and saves (183) last year for the Tigers—returned to Australia to play professionally.

Key Match-Up: Pepperdine, Saturday, October 26, Stockton, CA

ucsbLast year UC Santa Barbara (#7T) was shut out of the postseason. With an 18-8 record—the best in almost three decades—the Gauchos boasted three of the conference’s best player and seemed well on their way to challenging Pacific for conference supremacy. Then, they weren’t; the Gauchos season ended abruptly when UCSB Athletics decided to shut down the team at the end of the regular season—the result of an unspecified NCAA violation.

[UCSB Statement on Skipping 2018 GCC Men’s Water Polo Tournament]

For 2019, the belief is that UCSB—picked first in the GCC Coaches preseason poll—will be highly motivated to win a GCC title and qualifying for NCAAs for the first time since 1990. Boris Jovanovic (team-leading 28 goals) graduated, but Head Coach Wolf Wigo’s next four leading scorers are back, including Ivan Gvozdanovic (48 goals, 35 assists, 37 steals) and Jacob Halle (16 goals, 18 assists). Junior goalie Tiago Bonchristiano (149 saves) returns with Danny Roland—late of UCLA—and Justyn Barrios options off the bench.

Wigo has brought in a strong crop of freshmen; Mason Chambliss of San Ramon Valley; Jonathan Matarangas and Logan Sutter of Valley Christian and Colton Gregory of Laguna Beach. All the pieces are in place for UCSB to make a deep postseason run; question is: can they leapfrog Long Beach State—who they beat twice in 2018—and Pacific for the title?

Key Match-Up: Long Beach State, Saturday, October 26, Long Beach, CA

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Rounding out the GCC “Big Four” is Pepperdine (#7T), which not only boasts two accomplished fifth-year seniors in Chris Dilworth (51 goals) and Marko Asic—2016 GCC Player of the Year; 68 goals in 2017—who redshirted in 2018, they also have Head Coach Terry Schroeder. The legendary U.S. Olympic star—Schroeder captained back-to-back Olympic silver medalists in 1984 and 1988 then coached the Americans to silver in 2008—he is also the last coach to lead a non-Pac 12 team to an NCAA title when the Waves won in 1997.

Before Pepperdine faithful start buying their NCAA tickets, the Waves—which went 16-11 with a 3-1 record in GCC play—will need to determin who’s in goal. John Claude Marco (188 saves) is the incumbent but Schroeder has senior Conrad Gordon, junior Kyle McKenny and freshman Kent Emden waiting in the wings.

Newcomers include Zach Arthur of Redlands Valley East, Xavier Marco of Sacred Heart Prep, Austin Smit of Cathedral Catholic High School, Connor Settem of Moorpark and Kaden Kaneko from Mater Dei. They’ll be called on to replace <who?>

Key Match-Up: Long Beach State, Saturday, November 9, Malibu, CA

UCI

The Anteaters of UC Irvine (#13) saw a big drop-off from 2017 to last year, as their record went from 15-10 to 9-17. Head Coach Marc Hunt will look for a revival of UCI fortunes behind Jason Evezard (64 goals), 2018 GCC Newcomer of the Year, and junior Casey Lynton (28 goals, 28 assists, conference-best 42 steals).

To ingnite this renaissance, Hunt has brought eight freshmen on to the conference’s youngest side (16 lower classmen) including Chad Gornay of Redlands East Valley, Jack Green of Huntington Beach and Oliver Teitscheid of Master Dei, and added Ivan Mercep—brother of USC’s Jacob—as a transfer.

Senior Chandler Mankins (46 saves) will get first crack at the UCI goalie cage vacated by Byron Rivers (193 saves), who was lost to graduation. Next in line are Marko Kruska, also a college transfer, and freshman Collin Winters.

Key Match-Up: UC Santa Barbara, Saturday, November 2, Santa Barbara, CA

sjsSan Jose State (#18) also regressed from last year, going from 14 wins in 2017 to 6 in 2018. Head Coach Bruce Watson will return junior Justin Pickering (team-high 31 goals) and a trio of sophomores: Neil Arnett (27 goals), Adam Bado (24 goals) and goalie Yahav Fire (195 saves). Fire may be the most impotant of a group of ten sophomores on SJSU’s 18-man roster; his 60.7 save percentage was tops among GCC starters.

Like UCI, San Jose State is young but the Spartans are unbalanced; there’s no freshmen and only three juniors on this year’s roster. If the Spartans are to continue their impressive rebirth narrative, it will be behind their super sophomores and seniors Marc Weber, Ashley Castle, Emerson Trout, Giacomo Lovatelli and Finn Pardon—who in 2017 scored 34 goals but missed all of 2018.

Key Match-Up: UC Irvine, Sunday, October 20, Irvine, CA

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