Notes from a Memorable Start to the 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Season

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Leo Yuno—and all the Gauchos—have enjoyed a fantastic start to the 2019 NCAA men's season. Photo Courtesy: Jeff Liang

BROOKLYN, NY. After a string of eye-opening developments—UC Santa Barbara beating #1 teams twice in one week and Cal losing three times in the season’s first two weekends, including to UC Davis for the first time in four decades—it seems right to delve into what’s going on with men’s water polo. And correct a wrong impressions about the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA).

Big Four No More?

Two weekends ago, USC (4-1) lost decisively to UCSB. Not only was it the mighty Trojans’ first loss to the Gauchos since 1990—a streak of 55 straight—they also dropped a match on their opening weekend for the first time since 1994. Last Thursday, the Gauchos beat Stanford, which had assumed top ranking from USC.

[#2 UC Santa Barbara Storms into Avery, Shocks #1 Stanford in Men’s Water Polo]

Adding to the Pac-12’s angst: Cal (7-3) has already lost three games to non-Pac-12 opponents—meaning five losses by MPSF team that constitute the “Big Four”—Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC—in the first two weeks of the season.

To put this in context, in the three years since five teams bolted the MPSF for the Golden Coast Conference (GCC) prior to the 2016 season, members of the Big Four had lost five times to non-Pac-12 opponents. Three of those losses came in 2016, when Stanford was beaten three times; twice to Pacific and once by UCSB.

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Stanford’s Ben Hallock; a hat trick against UCSB is not enough. Photo Courtesy: Bryan Williams

It’s perhaps convenient to point to the mercurial rise of of the Gauchos—with six wins over CWPA Top Ten opponents in a blistering 13-0 start to their season—but the overall gap between the Big Four and their non-MPSF opponents does appear to be narrowing. This weekend, Cal had to go to overtime to beat San Jose State 13-11. UCLA—which perhaps has an unblemished record (6-0) because they have yet to face UCSB—went down 5-1 to #6 Pepperdine on Saturday at home before rallying for a 14-12 win.

It’s still early in the season, but the losses that Pac-12 teams have suffered in 2019 are at least noteworthy—and the losing may continue in the 2019 MPSF Invitational, this weekend at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center.

Slaying the Trojans and the Cardinal

The news out of Claremont for USC’s opening weekend was stunning. The mighty Trojans were derailed by a determined (and obviously talented) Gaucho group. Two months from now, it may not mean anything—especially for USC, which so far this season has missed Marko Vavic and Sawyer Rhodes, mainstays of last year’s national champion. Also missing: uber freshman Stefan Vavic. Reports suggest that Rhodes may struggle to return this season; if their issues are tied to an NCAA investigation of the program—which at the moment can only be speculated about—the Vavic brothers may not play at all.

Even if the program gets Marko back and his brother in the water, their father’s absence has to impact USC recruiting. If there’s one thing that Jovan was known for, it was his ability to entice foreign prospects to Troy. Last year there were four foreign freshmen on the USC men’s roster, including Australia’s Nic Porter, who emerged as the Trojan’s top goalie. This doesn’t include Jacob Mercep, the Serbian lefty who was enticed to USC by the prospect of a national championship—and became the Trojans leading scorer and 2018 NCAA final MVP.

[Jacob Mercep Named MPSF Player of the Week]

For 2019? No foreign-born freshmen. Some may cheer this development; most would subscribe to the reality in NCAA polo that foreign athletes are difference makers.

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Marko and Jovan Vavic after the 2018 NCAA final—a long time ago… Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

One needs look no further then UCSB, which was led last fall by Serbian Boris Jovanovic (77goals) and is now getting major contributions from senior Ivan Gvozdanovic, also of Serbia, as well as Sam Nangle of Australia and Tiago Bonchristiano of Brazil. Gvozdanovic and Nangle have been key factors in two Gaucho wins over #1 teams in a week—a remarkable accomplishment by any stretch.

Wolf Wigo’s team may have surprised the Trojans, but there’s no way they should have caught the Cardinal (6-1) by surprise last week—or, maybe they did because the Gauchos (13-0) broke out to a 6-1 lead on their way to a convincing 15-10 victory at Avery Aquatic Center. Leading the way was Leo Yuno, a (perhaps) unheralded attacker who scored three of those first six goals and assisted on two of them on his way to a seven-point afternoon (four goals, three assists).

[UC Santa Barbara Aims to Replicate Gauchos’ 1979 NCAA Championship Run]

Stanford rebounded against UC Davis on Saturday, taking a 16-8 win over the Aggies; The Cardinal may get another shot at the Gauchos at the MPSF Invite, but there’s no dismissing the huge implications of UCSB’s back-to-back conquests of #1 teams: it’s an impressive body of early season work that should give the Gauchos at least a share of the top spot in the polls this week.

UC Davis captures an historic victory

If the Trojans were tripped up by the Gauchos, it looks like Cal early on fell into a deep hole, especially against UC Davis. Losing to UCSB at the Triton Invitational in the first week of the season now seems understandable. Much harder to explain: a 16-13 OT loss to the Aggies—for the first time in more than anyone can remember.

The only record available is the Cal website, which has entries that date back to 2000. Over a span of 19 years—and 27 matches—Cal had not lost to their regional rival. But, UC Davis Head Coach Dan Leyson believes it may be much longer—as far back as 1976. After his team’s win against a Cal program that has represents a standard of excellence in the Bay Area, Leyson cited a total team effort.

– Quotes courtesy of Jason Spencer, UC Davis Assistant Director, Athletics Communications

“We had balanced scoring we had some guys step up and have hat tricks in the game and those guys had been working so hard, and trying so hard, and it hasn’t been happening for them and it finally paid off that game. Also, really timely goalkeeper play. There were a couple instances where we were exposed and, in that moment, Jonah (Addington) stepped up — especially in overtime — and made two huge steals where he was more aggressive in coming out. I think that was a big step. We need great goalkeeper play and we had it in that game and the result shows.

“I’m so happy for them. It feels great and I’m happy for the guys because they wanted it so bad but, you know what? It’s one game and it’s early in the season and we’ve talked about it already. Is this going to be our high point for the season? We’ve already learned about complacency and the negative things that come along with winning. Not everything that comes along with winning is positive and we’ve learned from that and we’re aware of that. So, we’re just going to keep going forward.”

Leyson also added this thought, which may have been most telling: “It was just an overall team feeling that felt better in that game. Now, the question is, can we keep that going?”

The answer this weekend was “No.” The Aggies (5-4) dropped a 14-10 decision to the Golden Bears on Sunday at their own tournament, a day after getting beat 16-8 by Stanford at Davis. In truth, beating Cal, or Stanford or any other non-conference opponent means relatively little in the bigger picture; what does count is how UC Davis does against Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) rivals, in particular, UC San Diego.

[Friday Rewind: UC San Diego Beats Princeton in Wild Men’s Water Polo Contest]

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Victory after 40 years! UC Davis’ Dan Leyson celebrates. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

In their first weekend of play Leyson’s squad dropped a 12-8 decision to the Tritons; luckily it was a non-conference match-up, but UCSD was missing Kacper Langiewicz, a senior center who has been nursing an injury early on—but should be back in the water on November 9th, when the two teams who have split the WWPA title the last six years meet in their final regular season match before the WWPA tournament.

The Tritons are NOT going anywhere

If UC Davis fans had hopes that their biggest obstacle to an NCAA berth might be going away, they—and this columnist—were sadly mistaken. Despite a move to NCAA Division I status, and an almost total migration to the Big West Conference that will be completed by 2020, the Tritons will be staying put in the WWPA for the foreseeable future.

[2019 Swimming World Men’s Water Polo Previews: Western Water Polo Association]

This was confirmed by Steve Doten, WWPA Commissioner; it makes sense because UCSD has grown comfortable getting to the NCAA tournament through the conference’s automatic berth—even though the conference is meant to be a haven for DII programs. the reality is more than half of its members on the men’s side are Division I programs. For the Aggies to get back to the big show this December, they’ll need to beat the Tritons—and maybe a resurgent Loyola Marymount program.

Fordham, beast (and best) of the East?

Harvard has gotten off to a fast (9-0) start, Bucknell has perhaps the best player (Rade Joksimovic) and La Salle (5-8) has demonstrated it’s no longer a bottom-feeder. But the real surprise team of the East has been Fordham. They’ve beaten #14 (T) Bucknell and #16 St. Francis, and pushed #12 Harvard in an 11-8 loss at the Princeton Invitational. At 9-2 and already 3-0 in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC), the Rams, whose polo players do not receive athletic scholarships, are off to a fantastic start, including a 4-0 sweep last weekend at the Bison Invitational.

[2019 Swimming World Men’s Water Polo Previews: Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-East]

Leading the way for Head Coach Bill Harris’ squad has been Jake Miller-Tolt, who will finish his career in the Bronx as the Rams’ all-time leading scorer. Helping out on both ends of the ball has been Oscar Nomura, who transferred this summer from MAWPC rival Wagner.

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Fordham’s Bill Harris, Oscar Nomura and Brian Bacharach. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

At the Navy Invitational, Nomura talked about moving from one New York City program to another.

“I had an epiphany over winter break. I was going to get stick with a major that I didn’t want. I really wanted to do a bachelor of science. Coming to Fordham and doing Environmental Science, which is not a program at Wagner, was my best move. Water polo-wise, this team and the culture fit me better than Wagner did.”

– You were a founding member of the Seahawk men’s program—and now you’ve moved literally to the other side of the city to play for the Rams.

“Those guys are my best friends—I spent pretty much every waking minute with them. It was definitely the toughest decision that I ever made.

“I still think about it but in the end, I think I made the right decision for me personally.”

– Chris Radmonovich, who recruited you to Wagner, has left the Seahawks.

“I got a text from one of my buddies at Wagner about Chris stepping down and I was in complete shock. I could never image that happening—it was surreal to me.

[Radmonovich Steps Down After Nine Superb Years Leading Wagner Water Polo]

“You can’t look back. We have a really good team here and I’m ready to move forward.”

And so the Rams have. Next up: George Washington, back-to-back MAWPC title-holders, come to the Bronx on Saturday.