2019 Swimming World Men’s Water Polo Previews: Mountain Pacific Sports Federation

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UCLA's Alex Wolf is the best goalie in America—and should be a difference-maker for the Bruins this season. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

It’s hard to believe that almost a year has passed since Stanford beat Cal last November and claimed the first Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title for the Cardinal since 2014. A new year, and new opportunities abound for the six schools that make up MPSF. The so-called Big Four of Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC will battle for supremacy in NCAA men’s water polo. Austin College and Penn State Behrend will be mere spectators to all of this—with the brief exception of one day when they face their conference mates. Then they return to their respective realities.

As in most years predicting the fates of the country’s best programs, there’s a certain amount of guess work, coupled with an awareness of how unpredictable life can be. Who would have guessed that after 25 years and 15 NCAA titles Jovan Vavic would not be leading USC, and that Marko Pintaric, his long-time assistant, would now be the face of Trojan polo?

The MPSF tournament will take place November 22-24 at Cal Berkeley’s Spieker Aquatics Complex.

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

uclaAdam Wright is now the top coach in American water polo. This is not a casual statement. John Vargas at Stanford certainly has the pedigree, gravitas and success to be anointed such, and Kirk Everist has accomplished everything possible as both a coach and player. But in his relatively brief tenure at UCLA, Wright has remade the Bruins into the nation’s top men’s program, and with the removal of Vavic at USC, there’s no other coach in America that has as much influence on the sport in our country.

Alex Wolf is the top goalie in the country. Backstopping Team USA to gold at the 2019 Pan American Games—and a berth in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo—no other keeper can lay claim the success the 22-year-old Huntington Beach native can.

All things being equal in the talent race that is MPSF polo, these two factors are difference-makers in the conference this season. UCLA (#2) returns Nicolas Saveljic (51 goals), Ashworth Molthen (32 goals), Jake Cavano (32 goals) Felix Brozyna-Vilim (31 goals) from a line-up that last year was within a goal of advancing to the national championship match.

Sure, Quinten Osborne (39 goals) has decamped down the coast to Long Beach State, but there’s probably five players on Wright’s deep roster if—given the chance—are capable of producing at his level.

Ten true freshmen have been added to the Bruins ranks for 2019—and there’s five red-shirt freshmen, meaning that more than half UCLA’s roster of 29 has with four years of eligibility. As always, how these players develop will be key to this season and beyond.

Key Match-Up: USC, Saturday, November 9, Los Angeles, CA (UCLA); Pac 12 Network

uscA team that boasts Hannes Daube (58 goals)—one of the top young players in the world—Jacob Mercep (62 goals) was MVP of the 2018 Men’s NCAA Tournament, Marko Vavic (57 goals) is a contributor to the U.S. National Team, and Nic Porter (164 saves), who backstopped the Trojans to a national title last December, must be the best in the land, no?

There’s no denying the talent on USC’s (#1) roster; remarkably the Trojans had only three personnel losses—senior Zach D’Sa, goalie Sam Krutonog, who transferred to crosstown rival UCLA and Sawyer Rhodes, who’s not on the roster—from a team that went 31-3 and won the program’s 10th NCAA title with a 14-12 victory over Stanford.

No, make that four personnel changes; losing Vavic, the winningest coach in American intercollegiate polo, has to make a difference to a program that—up until last March exuded everything Jovan—has to make a difference.

There’s no question that Marko Pintaric, who is as steeped in the Trojan tradition as anyone associated with USC, will be successful. But, when it matters most, will he have the same impact on his players and the flow of a match that Vavic had?

For 2019, USC has brought in ten freshmen, most notably Stefan Vavic, Marko’s brother. The Trojans also have two red-shirt freshmen and three seniors— Sam Slobodien, Marin Dasic and Matt Maier.

Key Match-Up: Stanford, Saturday, November 2, Los Angeles, CA

stanfordBen Hallock (65 goals) has accomplished almost everything that an uber-successful American water polo player can. He’s already been to one Olympics, and is ticketed to go to another. Last year he was named as the Cutino Award winner as well as MPSF Player of the Year, and he’s on track to be one of the greatest to ever play for Stanford (#3) men’s polo. But, he’s not been on a national championship winner, and—short of an Olympic medal—this must get under his skin.

Hallock’s desire—and his ability to compartmentalize the many pressing demands on his time, including classes at one of the top schools in the world, and his essential role with the U.S. men’s team that is track for the Tokyo Games—will likely be huge factors in just how successful the Cardinal are in 2019.

Not that Hallock will be alone in this endeavor. Vargas has surrounded his star center with some of the best young players that America can produce—Tyler Abramson (57 goals), Jackson Seybold (28 goals), Bennett Williams (62 goals), Dylan (22 goals) and Quinn Woodhead—and a quartet of imposing freshmen.

If there’s any questions for the Cardinal this season, it will be how they respond to the opening quarter drubbing dished out by the Trojans in 2018 NCAA title match, and is George Hagestad a worthy successor to Oliver Lewis (251 saves) in goal.

Key Match-Up: Cal, Saturday, November 9, Stanford, CA; Pac 12 Network

calIt seems odd to predict fourth in MPSF for a Cal (#4) program that is the most successful in the history of NCAA men’s polo—but that’s exactly what the recent coaches poll predicted. Given his ability to get the most out of his talent, and the legacy of the Golden Bears, who have won 14 national championships and boast some of the country’s greatest players and coaches, Cal Head Coach Everist should never be underestimated.

For 2019 he’ll have to replace three important pieces—Johnny Hooper (49 goals, all-time steals leader), Vassilis Tzavaras (38 goals) and Odysseas Masmanidis (29 goals)—from a squad that failed to advance to an NCAA final for the second-straight year. Everist has Safak Simsek (47 goals) and Jordan Hoover (33 goals)—and brought in Jasmin Kolasinac (203 goals at Wagner College) to compensate for the loss of the dynamic Hooper.

Manning the cage for the Golden Bears again in 2019 is Bernardo Carelli (202 saves); will he be the difference between a fourth-place finish and a shot at an MPSF title?

Key Match-Up: UCLA, Saturday, November 2, Los Angeles, CA

austin-collegeThe polo experiment in North Texas has—based upon early returns—been an unqualified success. Austin College has not yet seen success in the win column, with a lone victory in the inaugural season of play. But a new season brings new opportunities, including travel to both coasts this month and the first-ever Austin College Invite on the school’s Sherman, Texas campus.

This doesn’t mean that the Kangaroo’s decision to join forces with the mighty MPSF makes the most sense for a neophyte DIII program. What it does suggest is that Head Coach Mark Lawrence is pushing all the right buttons as he grows the sport in one of USA Water Polo’s most desirable regions.

Returning for the Kangaroos are Andrew Pope (team-high 27 goals) and Will Koelzer (8 goals); both were All-American DIII Honorable Mention. Lawrence’s roster has grown to 26, and what’s perhaps most significant is that 18 of his athletes are from Texas.

This doesn’t mean the Kangaroos will win more than a handful of matches this season; what’s essential is that there’s a foundation being established in Texas, and the future could be very bright for polo in the Southwest.

Key Match-Up: Ottawa, Saturday, November 9, Sherman, TX

penn_stIf one accepts that Austin College was justified by location in accepting the MPSF’s offer to join, it’s a stretch to say the same for Penn State Behrend. The Nittany Lions were a pedestrian 5-18 last season, and fared poorly against the teams in the polo-rich region of the Midwest where they are located in. In match-ups with Gannon, Mercyhurst, Salem and Washington and Jefferson, Penn State was 1-7. Traveling out West at season’s end to be a sacrificial lamb for one of the Big Four doesn’t seem to bode well for a program that hasn’t proven it can compete at the DIII level.

Matt Olimski (199 saves) shared time with Alijah Santangelo in the Penn State cage; his continued development will be key to any success Head Coach Joe Tristan hopes for in 2019. Isaak Hatopp (42 goals, 39 steals) returns for his senior season, as does Austin Hopp (19 goals, team-high 21 assists) and Andre Sardaryzadeh (12 goals, 24 steals).

Six freshmen will don the Nittany Lions’ colors this fall, and they are drawn from all over the country—one of the prime justifications for joining the MPSF. But, if that new talent doesn’t facilitate wins, traveling once a year out to be target practice for UCLA, USC or Cal doesn’t seem justifiable.

Key Match-Up: Gannon, Saturday, October 19, Erie, PA

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Dante Dettamanti

    Isn’t Oliver Lewis a senior goalkeeper for Stanford this year? Why do you have Hagestad replacing him?

  2. avatar
    Dante Dettamanti

    My bad. Andrew Chun is the starting goalkeeper for Stanford this year, replacing Oliver Lewis. Sophomore George Hagestad is the backup goalkeeper.