On Deck with Danny Roland, UC Santa Barbara Men’s Water Polo Goalie

Danny Roland, new UCSB goalie, has given the Gauchos a spark. Photo Courtesy: UCSB Athletics

A tried and true sports tale is of the team missing a single piece to succeed—and when that player arrives, together they achieve greatness. It’s too early to know if this is the story of the 2019 University of California at Santa Barbara men’s water polo team, but—nine games into their season with new goalie Danny Roland—the Gauchos have experienced unprecedented success. Not only has Wolf Wigo’s team gotten off to the fastest start in program history, better than the 1979 NCAA champions who went 28-2 on their way to the national championship, UCSB has already beaten top-ranked USC and #4 Cal—as well as #5 Long Beach State and #7 Pepperdine—in opening their season 9-0.

ucsbRoland, who transferred this summer from UCLA, came onto a team that last year had more than enough offense (340 goals), but needed help in goal. From Sir Francis Drake High School and SHAQ club polo—one of the top programs in the Bay Area—Roland was scouting out new opportunities after languishing on the Bruin bench behind All-American Alex Wolf. As fate would have it, Connor Moynihan, his former high school teammate, sang the praises of the Gauchos, who went 18-8 in 2018 but voluntarily passed on the Golden Coast Conference post-season as a result of a review by UCSB Athletics and the NCAA.

[2018 USA Water Polo Junior Olympics: Day Four: All Polo is Local]

With a trio of scorers—Cole Brosnan, Jacob Halle and Sam Nangle—and strong defense provided by Ivan Gvozdanovic and Mason McQuet, the Gauchos have an experienced core ready to win now. In goal they have Roland in tandem with junior Tiago Bonchristiano and senior Justyn Barrios—and boundless confidence while they go up against GCC foe Pepperdine today and new #1 Stanford tomorrow as they look to write a new chapter for UCSB polo.

Swimming World spoke this week with Roland about his transition to Santa Barbara, big wins over the Golden Bears, the Trojans and the Waves, going up against the Cardinal and former high school teammates, and a possible clash against the Bruins in the MPSF Invitational next weekend.

– You were a highly recruited prospect out of Sir Francis Drake High School in the Bay Area. You commit to UCLA—the 2017 national champions and your mom’s alma mater—arrive on campus and…sit. How hard was that experience?

When I was thinking about going to UCLA, I loved the program—or I thought I loved the program, the whole school, everything about LA. But when I got there it was a different than what I expected.

UCSB vs Stanford

Connor Moynihan and Danny Roland. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

I missed a lot of the preseason because I was traveling with the national team. I was kind of the “other guy.” And I never really clicked with the team, which was one of the first things that I noticed halfway through the season. I liked the freshman class, got along with them, but the upperclassmen and sophomores, I just never really got to a personal level with [them], which made things harder.

At UCLA you’re training a lot, you’re doing a lot of water polo together and if you don’t have friendships with the whole team, it’s hard to enjoy it all. As far as school [it] wasn’t really a factor why I transferred. It was the team and that I didn’t really see eye to eye with the coaches. Towards the end of the season, I knew what I was capable of doing with my water polo career and I just didn’t see myself staying in LA to play four years. I knew what I had to do and that is why I decided to transfer.

– And you ended up at UC Santa Barbara, a school that didn’t go to the post-season last year, even though the Gauchos were one of the best teams in the Golden Coast Conference.

When I was going through the transfer process in the winter of 2018-19—in my freshman year—I was not training with UCLA. I was, I don’t know if the word [is] kicked off, but removed from the team until I figured out what I was doing. I talked to my buddy Connor every single day about how it’s going, what their program is, about, how the team is, and the coaches Wolf and Ryan [McMillen]. He told me he loved it. He [said] there wasn’t one thing he wanted to change.

That winter I went to Santa Barbara to visit him and was able to meet some of the guys. I could tell [the team] had a vibe similar to my high school team. The coaches knew what to do. Not prioritizing water polo over everything, including school. More of a free social life, which I really liked. [It’s] one of the biggest reasons why I transferred.

– UCSB opens at the Triton Invitation and beats Cal in the first weekend with you making big stops at the end, including on a penalty shot. Now, you’re officially a Gaucho.

We played Pepperdine [an 11-5 win] and were able to do what we needed to do and we beat them. We went into the Cal game thinking that we had nothing to lose. They were the higher seed; they’re Pac-12. Everybody thinks Pac-12 is a lot better than any other school.


Tiago Bonchristiano. Photo Courtesy: Tony Mastres

We prepared a lot for this tournament—all summer, all preseason—and Wolf and Ryan really dialed down what we needed to focus on and how to beat them defensively and offensively. We watched a ton of film, whiteboard plays, all that good stuff and a ton of pool time. With all that and the team chemistry we have, it just worked. We knew what we had to do and did it.

– That win has set the stage for what could be a really fantastic season—and it’s only two weeks in.

With the way our team is, I don’t think there’s any other team in the entire nation that is closer than us, which leads us to have some of the best in chemistry. Personally, I think chemistry in a team is more important than whomever is leading the pack, the top two or three players.

Our team works together. We know what people like to do, how people do it, when they want the ball, where the centers need the ball. We’re all communicating and helping each other out. And it just works. Which is really special to me because that’s exactly how my high school team was.

It brings back a lot of good memories. We have our practices every week, we grind, we learn more about who we are as a person, each other, our coaches. You’re working on certain plays, you have strategies to work on for certain teams that we’re going to play in the upcoming [weeks] either a tournament or just a game in general.

The chemistry here is beyond amazing. It’s fantastic.

– You follow up the Cal win with a stunning victory over USC—it’s taken almost 30 years for the Gauchos to beat the Trojans. And it wasn’t just a one or two-goal game—you play the national champs with two future Olympians, and you’re able to shut them down.

We scored the first goal on our first or second possession. So, we came out a little hot after that first goal was scored—it brought a whole different level of energy to our bench. That first goal sparked me; I kind of woke up and [thought]: We have a chance, we can do this, we can beat USC.

[UCSB Men’s Water Polo Beats #1 USC For First Time in Three Decades; Gauchos’ Best Start Ever]

And we just kept playing how we normally play, we didn’t do anything special. We didn’t change anything. We kept playing how we normally played and we had Ivan—he guarded Hannes [Daube].

Personally, I think Ivan is one of the greatest defenders in NCAA water polo right now—not just to defend as a center but a defender overall and he guarded Hannes most of the game and honest. Went one for five that shows that with Ivan on him and myself in the goal along with the other five players. It’s hard, especially when Hannes is scoring three or four goals. [Against us] he went one for five.


Ivan Gvozdanovic. Photo Courtesy: Tony Mastres

It’s a team effort. It’s not just one person; it’s all of us. And that’s what we all strive for: everybody doing their part and it all works.

– Now you’re facing Stanford Friday in their pool. Do you feel you have something to prove—that the Gauchos are not an upstart team, but the best team in the nation?

Winning the National Championship is what every kid strives for. But, for our team, what I’ve noticed is we’re not focusing too much on Stanford. We have Pepperdine on Thursday, which is also a very important game to us.

We know Stanford has Ben Hallock—and the Woodhead brothers [Dylan and Quinn], also the, the Hanson twins [Spencer and Wyatt], [who] went to my high school. I all played with them. Hallock’s an Olympian, he’s fantastic.

Like I said, it’s not what’s on paper. It’s who comes out at that day to be the best. We’re not stressing about any game. We’re trying to do what we know we can—to find their weaknesses. We’re going to watch film, probably Thursday night after our game and we’re going to be ready to go. Whatever happens, happens. We win, we win, we lose, we lose. It’s the beginning of the season, which is also a huge part of what Wolf and Ryan have said: we don’t need to beat every team right now.

We’re going to keep rolling. And we can learn from that and grow as a team. I cannot wait to play Stanford, cannot wait to play Pepperdine. And I can’t wait to play my previous teammates from high school.

– What about your former team, UCLA? You also kind of have a chip on your shoulder, right?

I played the fall season and that was it for me. But I have the utmost respect for UCLA as a program along with Adam Wright and Jason [Falitz]. But, for me, nothing would feel better than to beat UCLA and to beat them in their home pool. I’ve thought about it since the day I transferred and have been looking forward to it.

But, every game is [a] different team, different style of play, and a different outcome. You never really know what you’re going to get—you just strive to be the best you can be. And hopefully you win.

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Tim Hill
Tim Hill
4 years ago

Fantastic Danny! Good luck

4 years ago

Did the Vavic brothers play in the USC game? You say there were “two future olympians in the water”—no stats for Markov Vavic. Presumably UCSB shut him out.

4 years ago

USC is missing the Vavic brothers and left handed Sawyer Rhodes (transfer from Stanford). One would certainly like to know why they are not in the water (Vavic’s) or not on the roster (Rhodes). As for UCSB your article hits the nail on the head; they are the beneficiary of a goalkeeper of the caliber that usually ends up playing or warehoused on one of the top four teams. Unsure if he was in the water over the summer when UCSB lost to Davis at men’s “nationals”. UCSB’s test will come at Stanford this weekend and even more so at the upcoming tournament. Teams will adjust match-ups and smart shooters will watch Roland. If UCSB beats Stanford and wins the South Coast Tournament they will be the undisputed number one team in the nation. Based on today’s score with Pepperdine (OT win) there is a lot of water polo left to play in the Golden whatever league let alone nationally. If UCSB surge continues take a look at the 1979 Team’s goalie–Craig Wilson–best ever in the U.S. and among the best to play the game worldwide. He transferred from UC Davis. Wilson won two Olympic Silver Medals.

4 years ago

Great article- thank you!

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