2019 Swimming World Men’s Water Polo Previews: Southern California Intercollegiate Athletics Conference

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Pomona President Gabrielle Starr celebrates a third-straight SCIAC title by the Sage Hens. Photo Courtesy: Pomona-Pitzer Athletics

With the launch this season of the inaugural Division III men’s water polo championship, the stakes for success in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletics Conference (SCIAC) just got higher. The top two finishers from the conference’s annual tournament will be invited to become half of the Final Four for the new DIII tournament, which will be played on December 7 and 8 at a SCIAC school site.

SCIACThis is a departure from the past five years, when the SCIAC winner earned a berth in the national championship, a situation that remains this season. Now, there’s paths to two different titles—and it will be interesting to see how this change plays out.

One thing is certain: the Sage Hens of Pomona-Pitzer will have a berth in the DIII National Championships—if they choose to take it. They have won the last three conference titles and were picked for first again in the annual SCIAC Coaches’ Poll. There are a number of candidates to join Pomona in the SCIAC finals; most likely are Whittier, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) and Cal Lutheran.

Chapman, Redlands and Occidental will push to break into the upper half of the SCIAC standings, while La Verne and Caltech hope to continue rebuilding for a brighter future.

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

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The new postseason arrangement for the SCIAC presents a dilemma for Pomona-Pitzer (#1). After a 2018 campaign that saw the Sage Hens go undefeated (16-0) in SCIAC play, including two wins in the conference tournament, Head Coach Alex Rodriguez’s squad may be even stronger in 2019. Pomona lost a lone senior—Adam Ward (team-leading 55 goals; 2018 SCIAC Athlete of the Year)—to graduation.

Rodriguez therefore returns almost the entire roster from a squad that went 24-9 in 2018, including a signature win in overtime against UC Irvine. Sam Sasaki (44 goals, 41 assists; First Team All-SCIAC), Dylan Eliott (45 goals), Joseph Schafer (42 goals First Team All-SCIAC) and Jacob Niskey (36 goals Second Team All-SCIAC) are back, as is James Kelbert (199 saves; 21 games started).

Because Pomona is a DIII that plays as well as a DI, it’s possible that the program will be penalized by having to forego a weekend at the DI tournament—though they’ve come up empty in three trips to the NCAA quarterfinals, including a results in a 12-5 loss to Long Beach State in 2018.

They’ll have to prove their mettle in non-conference play; with Air Force, Brown, Harvard, La Salle, Pepperdine and UC San Diego on this year’s schedule, Pomona will have plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Key Match-Up: Pepperdine, Saturday, October 5, Claremont, CA

Whittier_logoUnder first-year head coach David Kasa, Whittier (#2) improved to 10-4 in conference play, good for second in the regular season, part of a 15-14 campaign by the Poets. They were upset by third-seeded CMS in the semifinals of the SCIAC Tournament, but were again slotted at number two in the coaches’ poll.

Kasa returns a trio of top performers: goalie Murat Ersoz (213 saves; First Team All-SCIAC); Hans Zdolsek (48 goals; First Team All-SCIAC) and Eric Borunda (team-leading 58 goals; 2018 SCIAC Newcomer of the Year). To augment the roster, this fall the Poets brought in seven freshmen and five junior college transfers.

Only Marc-Andre Roy was lost to graduation; if everyone stays healthy, the Poets can write their ticket to the DIII championship.

Key Match-Up: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Wednesday, October 2, Whittier, CA

Claremont_Mudd_Scripps_StagsA surprising second place finish in the 2018 SCIAC tournament likely has Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (#3) Head Coach Greg Lonzo dreaming of bigger things this year. To move to the next level—which means a national postseason tournament—the Stags will need to build off the successful seasons of Will Clark (38 goals, 32 assists; First Team All-SCIAC) and Zack Rossman (team-high 44 goals; First Team All-SCIAC). They’ll have to do it without Ethan Lewis (34 goals, 30 steals; First Team All-SCIAC) who graduated last spring.

CMS’s two-headed goalie rotation remains intact; Matt Tran and Noah Smith (152 saves apiece) combined to lead the Stags to a 16-11 record and an upset win over Whittier in the SCIAC semifinals.

With five freshmen coming to Claremont this fall—including twins Noah and Ben Wheldon from Honolulu— Lonzo has enough talent to get back to the SCIAC finals.

Key Match-Up: Johns Hopkins, Friday, October 4, Claremont, CA

cal-luther-crestIt was a roller coaster year for Head Coach Craig Rond and the Cal Lutheran (#4) men’s and women’s water polo program. The Regals community was devastated by the loss of Justin Meek, murdered in the Borderline Bar and Café mass shooting in December. Rond and his staff were honored as 2018 SCIAC Coaching Staff of the Year for the Regals’ 16-12 record in the fall;  in the spring his women’s team upset favored Pomona-Pitzer in the SCIAC final. The win advance Cal Lutheran to the program’s first NCAA tournament in a decade, with Justin’s sister Victoria Rose playing a significant role on the women’s team.

[On The Record with Craig Rond, Head Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach for Cal Lutheran]

What will he and his team do for an encore this fall?

Likely build around a young core of talented players, including Ben Brown (59 goals, 36 assists, 57 steals; First Team All-SCIAC), Dillon Goldsmith (49 goals, Second Team All-SCIAC) and Andre Rivas (206 saves). This is not to slight seniors.  Seth Hightower (16 goals) Tanner Kaplan (18 goals) and George Lundgren (50 goals, 15 assists) who will provide leadership to a young roster, many of whom are underclassmen.

With the core of his team intact from last year—Rond lost Matt Fong (17 goals, team-high 50 steals), Jack Kirby (17 goals) and Justin English (13 goals) to graduation—the Regals are poised to qualify for a second-straight SCIAC tournament appearance.

Key Match-Up: Pomona-Pitzer, Saturday, October 21, Thousand Oaks, CA

chapmanWesley Hertel (314 saves) had a prolific season for Chapman (#6). His total saves topped all SCIAC goalies and kept his team in the mix for a postseason appearance until the final games of the regular season, when an 11-9 loss to Cal Lutheran sent the Regals, not the Panthers, to the SCIAC tournament.

Hertel is back for his senior year, and he’s got help. First, from back-ups Jack Gregov, Owen McNicholas and Danny Meisel. And, from six freshmen—including Meisel—that will ideally blend with Head Coach Eric Ploessel’s core of upperclassmen, including Hunter Ramaekers (25 goals, 29 assists, 34 steals) and Hayden Reider (23 goals, 37 points).

They will need to replace Vasil Halchev (67 goals, 20 assists), who transferred to La Verne, and Cameron Genetti (47 goals, 29 assists), lost to graduation.

But it’s the Panther’s prized sophomore class—headlined by Graham Asalone (57 goals, 69 assists) that will drive Chapman’s season—and will prove decisive if Ploessel’s squad is to make the SCIAC playoffs for the first time since 2017.

Key Match-Up: Cal Lutheran, Saturday, November 9, Orange, CA

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Since finishing third in 2015 with and 8-3 record in SCIAC play, Redlands (#7) has regressed. The Bulldogs qualified for the SCIAC playoffs in 2016, but missed out in 2017 and again last year. Based on votes from his fellow coaches, Head Coach Tom Whittemore’s squad is slated to finish sixth this season, and again miss the postseason.

The Bulldogs will return nine upperclassmen, but will have also 18 underclassmen, including 15 freshmen. One player who will not be returning is goalie Chris Martinez (193 saves). Whitmore will pick from sophomore Jason Gates or freshmen Bryce Elsner, Brandon Khalil and Liam Murphy to man the Redlands cage. He will also look to replace Grant Curry (All-SCIAC First-Team) who also graduated last May with offense from Spencer Allen, Carter Kerwin and Kyle Jackson.

Key Match-Up: Saturday, October 26, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Redlands, CA

occidentalWith a new pool scheduled this fall and a revamped line-up featuring 11 freshmen—almost doubling the size of his roster—Occidental (#9) Head Coach Jack Stabenfeldt has to be feeling great about the 2019 prospects for his Tigers. Now in his second year leading the men’s water polo team—before that he was a four-year starter for the Tigers—Stabenfeldt knows better than anyone how much impact a new facility will have on a program that has lagged behind the SCIAC leaders.

But, that transformation will take time, and turning his roster upside down is a crucial step toward where Occidental hopes to go. And turnover he has; Luke Boyer is the lone senior, and—including four juniors—more than 2/3 of the roster of 22 are underclassmen. Joseph Cox will return as will goalie Henry Grady to the Oxy cage, but Jason Teng will not be back for a team that won just 2 of 12 matches against conference foes—and 10-3 against everyone else.

Of the newcomers, Tanner Jones of San Ramon Valley High School), Dominic Rios of Redlands East Valley High School, goalkeeper Cole Ivie of Agoura High School and Jarrod Norton of Newbury Park High School appear to be most promising.

With a strong season from sophomores Cian Concannon, Hayden Comerford, Jasper Lee and Wilson Noll and the rapid maturity of the young bloods, the new Occidental pool will be the place to be for polo… in 2020.

Key Match-Up: La Verne, Saturday, October 26, Los Angeles, CA

laverneNow in his third year in La Verne, Head Coach Pat Beemer has a balance of experience throughout his roster: four freshmen, five sophomores, four juniors and seven seniors, headlined by Chucky Ortega (81 goals, 30 steals). A key acquisition was Vasil Halchev (67 goals, 20 assists) a transfer from Chapman.

Only two seniors graduated from a squad of 20, but one of them is goalie Ian Hernandez (174 saves). Beemer can choose from senior Mason Fox, junior Brian Wilder, sophomore Ryan Lehotsky and freshman Jonah Alvarado—a bevy of options that may take more than a season to pay off.

Key Match-Up: Austin College, Sunday, October 13, La Verne, CA

caltechAfter going 16 years without a win in SCIAC play, in 2017 Caltech finally broke through. In 2018 a win over La Verne allowed the Beavers to extended a modest streak: two years in a row beating a conference foe. Still, it doesn’t take a math genius to calculate that a 1-13 in conference play—and 6-19 overall—is not a winning proposition.

Key contributors last season for Head Coach Jon Bonafede were Steven Csaposs (69 goals, 17 assists; Second Team All-SCIAC), Charles Ross (33 goals) and Eshan Govil (34 goals, 22 assists).

Lost to graduation were Govil, Ross and goalie Shaurya Gilani (168 saves); Bonafede—who in 2017 earned ACWPC DIII Coach of the Year honors—will look to get rebuild around Bradley Justice (92 saves), Alex Wang (21 goals) and Alex Janosi (19 goals, team-high 23 assists).

The Beavers will need to take advantage of matches against La Verne and Occidental if they are to keep an essential streak alive—and continue to improve.

Key Match-Up: La Verne, Wednesday, October 16, Pasadena, CA