On The Record with Wolf Wigo, UC Santa Barbara Men’s Water Polo Coach

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The UCSB Gauchos have enjoyed a break-out season in 2019. Photo Courtesy: Eric Isaacs

If you’re a water polo fan and haven’t heard about the UC Santa Barbara men’s water polo team, the appropriate response is: Where have you been?! The Gauchos are off to the best start in an illustrious history that includes an NCAA championship in 1979—exactly forty years ago.

It may seem that this year’s team, which is the nation’s top-ranked squad for the first time in program history, came out of nowhere. But the truth is more complicated. Led for the last 15 years by Wolf Wigo, the Gauchos enjoyed a break-out season in 2018 which was curtailed early due to concerns about NCAA oversight.

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

Cleared by an internal audit of any wrong-doing, Wigo and his team have set at a blistering pace (13-0) to open this season, beating six teams ranked in the CWPA top-ten, including wins over two top-ranked squads—USC and Stanford—in the space of five days.

October 21, 2018; Spieker Aquatics Complex, Berkeley, CA, USA; Collegiate Mens Water Polo: California Golden Bears vs UC Santa Barbara Gauchos; UC Santa Barbara Head Coach Wolf Wigo Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Wolf Wigo. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Overcoming adversity is nothing new for Wigo, who is one of a few players from the East to succeed at the sport’s highest level. From a high school phenom at the New York Athletic Club to a two-time NCAA winner at Stanford, to captain of the 2004 U.S. men’s team at the Athens Olympics, Wigo has enjoyed success wherever he’s gone. Now he’s taken his program to new heights, in the process upsetting a U.S. collegiate establishment that for decades has been dominated by the “Big Four”: Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC.

Swimming World spoke this week with Wigo as his team prepares for the 2019 MPSF Invitational, the premiere men’s tournament that will take place September 27 – 29 in Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount’s Burns Center and UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center.

– It’s safe to say this is the first time in program history that the Gauchos have been ranked number one in the country by the Collegiate Water Polo Association.

There’s only been one other team outside the Big Four, in the last 20-something years, that’s been ranked number one—[University of Pacific] in 2013. We would have been ranked number one last week if we had been one of those top four teams.

We had to really prove it, to show everyone beyond a reasonable doubt, because each game we won it was: “Oh, that was lucky”. After we beat Cal, it’s okay, but now they’re going to lose to USC. Then we beat USC and they know for sure they’re going to lose to Stanford.

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

It’s significant to get there. It’s the sort of a milestone that gives the team extra confidence and makes them want to work harder. And it’s a virtuous cycle where success breeds more success.

I expect us to play with more confidence and play better in the second half of the season than we did in the first.

– Does what happened last year—with a self-review causing your team to miss the Golden Coast Conference playoffs—have any bearing on your success so far in 2019?

We’ve been doing a good job the last few years and everyone knew we were going to be better this year than last. We only lost one player from last year’s team, so everyone was expecting a really good result in the fall—but I don’t think we were expecting as good as it’s been so far.

Who knows what will happen in the next few weeks? But everyone was really excited and they just wanted to get after it. And that showed right from the first weekend.

– That win at the Triton Invitational over Cal—and then beating Long Beach State—showed that this could be a special season. Your team follows up with a huge victory over then #1 USC, and another over #1 Stanford. Now it’s on to Los Angeles for the MPSF Invite, where the Gauchos can win it all.

Winning against Pepperdine [before the Stanford match] it was a tight game and they’re really strong. They played UCLA to two goals and a really tough game.

We could go down and win the whole tournament. We could go down and lose a close game to Pepperdine. We could lose any game along the way. People might say, “Oh, see: they’re not that good.” These other teams have already lost four and five goal games. If we don’t win the tournament, I want to see that we play well—even if Pepperdine or UCLA or whoever we play in the tournament has a career game and we ended up losing, that’s not really the most important thing. It’s just continuing our confidence and how we’re playing.

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Photo Courtesy: UCSB Athletics

We want to be good at the end of the year. We already know beyond a reasonable doubt we could win it all this year based on what’s happened so far. If we win the whole thing, that’s great. If we don’t we keep our heads up and win the next games.

– It’s been four decades since the Gauchos won the NCAA tournament. Does this impact your players?

Absolutely. It’s fun that it’s exactly at the 40-year mark, makes it interesting and gives [me] some good talking points. That group of [alumni] are very supportive, and they’re all coming back for the reunion this year. We’re going to play USC that weekend so it’ll be a great match-up. Hopefully the team is ready to go.

– The UCSB roster is filled with determined athletes like Leo Yuno and Danny Roland and Alan Peoples—making the team more than the sum of its parts.

If you looked at our roster, there’s a lot of people like Leo—they’re not blue chip recruits, they’re not on the junior national team being recruited by all the top teams. A lot of these guys were passed over by the bigger schools as either too small or not experienced enough [or] can’t shoot that well.

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

Our roster is full of those players. This isn’t like all of a sudden we’ve got half the [U.S.] junior team and we’re winning on talent. We’re winning with guys who have a chip on their shoulder from not being recruited by the big schools and they’re great players in their own regard. We’ve been fortunate to have a complete team and every position this year.

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Leo Yuno. Photo Courtesy: Jeff Liang

Against Pepperdine, our three best defenders all fouled out. We were down to our fourth defender in the fourth quarter and both the overtimes. Alan Peoples stepped up, did a great job. He was a walk on at UCFB. I didn’t even recruit him. He got into the school on his own. He was a great student and he’s worked really hard. After the first year or two I thought he might get cut, but he just kept getting better.

There’s a lot of people like that on the team who just keep improving and that’s probably the success we have. No one’s got a huge ego on the team. Everyone has a lot to prove and they’re working hard to do that.

– This is what Danny Roland said; your squad is all about character. How did he end up at UCSB?

He heard through [our] players what kind of team chemistry we had, what the practices were like and what life was like at UC Santa Barbara. I think that really appealed to him.

A lot of top players coming out of high school have in their minds they have to go to a top four program. If more players like Danny go to a six through 10—you pick the number—or a top 20 program, then it makes it easier to win with more talent.

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

He’s a player who doesn’t like to warm up that much for games. He likes to just get wet, get his body and mind ready and do short periods of really, really intense training.

It just wasn’t a good fit at UCLA. I know they put in a lot of hours training really hard, it just didn’t work for him. And then everybody, every player is different and you have to be a part of the team, but at the same time you need to give some leeway for individual traits and experiences.

It’s worked out really well for him [at UCSB]. He’s very happy and it shows in his play. I’ve watched some of the video; he’s the best goalie in the country without a doubt. That’s with [Alex Wolf] the UCLA goalie being our top Olympic team goalie. Danny’s outplayed him and every other goalie this year.

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UCSB’s Tiago Bonchristiano. Photo Courtesy: Tony Mastres

[But] he has no guarantee at starting position. He’s played well, but Tiago [Bonchristiano] was our goalie last year. He’s played well also. Tiago is going to start our first game or this tournament against San Jose State—and that’s not a layup game. San Jose State went into overtime with Cal. They played Pacific very tough.

I told Danny when he first arrived: “You’re not the starting goalie. This is a fight and you have to keep it competitive. And if you don’t it’s not good”.

We have three deep goalies that can all push each other. That’s how we are in every position. Anyone has a bad game, we can put another guy in. As far as the team goes, it’s a good place to be.

5 comments

  1. avatar
    Anonymous

    Michael, your articles are so well written and so informative. This is such great publicity for UC Santa Barbara and well deserved. The team has great chemistry in the water and the most important thing is they all really like each other.

  2. avatar
    Anonymous

    Your question about UCSB’s “self-review” went unanswered. Last year’s team had a shot at winning the conference–something Wigo has yet to accomplish in over a decade of coaching.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Hi:

      My apologies for the oversight in responding. I’ve gotten over my “Gaucho high!” (not really – there’s more coverage coming!).

      To your point; when I spoke with Bill Mahoney, UCSB Assistant Athletics Director for Communications last November, he sent me the statement which you referenced. This was after a brief conversation with UCSB Men’s Coach Wolf Wigo, who put off a planned interview b/c of the university’s self-review of issues related to their men’s water polo program.

      Prior to this season, when I was working on the GCC MWP preview, I did communicate with Mr. Mahoney to confirm that their men’s team was eligible for NCAAs. He confirmed that they were but – again – did not specify what the infraction was that caused them to self-review.

      As I understand it, “self-review” is far more common w/NCAA water polo than might be known (hence the use of “self”). There was discussion around a West Coast program that self-reviewed an issue this September and has quietly dealt with it (sorry, I’m not going to mention details b/c it’s second-hand info).

      As to Wigo’s record at UCSB, I suppose he’s a convenient target b/c it’s been so long since the Gauchos went to NCAAs. But, you could say the same about Marc Hunt at UCI or John Loughran at LMU or Keith Wilbur at Santa Clara (among others). AND, this is not to cast doubt on ANY of these coaches; look at the situation – the MPSF has gotten THREE bids since the the NCAA went to seven teams in 2015. Before that, they got two of the four bids to the Final Four. There’s a reason that Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC have been the “Big Four” for so long….

      Maybe this is the year that a non-MPSF gets an at-large bid. I think that’s SUPER exciting; we’ll see what happens…

      Your (tardy) correspondent

  3. avatar
    Anonymous

    Wigo has not won a conference championship (forget NCAA)–Big West, GCC, whatever iteration–throughout his entire career. Needless to say the other coaches, Schroeder, Graham, Arroyo, etc. have. Hunt took UCI to MPSF tournament final in ’07 but, yes, one would think his wear date is well past. The success of UOP at NCAAs indicates that it is possible for an alternative to the “Big Four.” The best way for an outside team to breach that cabal is to win a conference championship (GCC). Or win out against UCLA and Cal if you are Wigo.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Hi:

      I’m not here to defend Wigo (rumor has it I only do that for Jovan Vavic); seriously, I’m not sure what your point is. We’re talking about THIS year; even if the Gauchos tank (and one-goal losses to the #2, #3 and #4 suggests they’re not going anywhere) they’ve been a GREAT story so far.

      I get that there are detractors of the UCSB coach; if he gets to NCAAs this year either by winning the GCC or getting an at large bid, do you think that will change perceptions? IDK—and it could be that Wigo’s name recognition b/c of Kap 7, or his dad, or his role w/Kathy Neushul’s departure at UCSB will always make him a target.

      If you haven’t read it, check out Steven Munatone’s piece on UCSB polo and Leo Yuno, who’s a GREAT story (and a good look that Wigo took him):

      https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/uc-santa-barbara-aims-to-replicate-gauchos-1979-ncaa-championship-run/

      Doesn’t EVERYONE want to see the Big Four’s reign end? I think what will tip the balance is if a GCC team gets that at-large spot—and you’re right, it’s on Wigo / the Gauchos to beat the Bruins tomorrow and Cal on 10/27 and make it possible.

      Your correspondent