UC Santa Barbara’s Danny Roland On the Gaucho’s Great Year — and GCC Rivals Pacific and Pepperdine

UCSB vs Stanford
A shining moment for UC Santa Barbara: a win over #1 Stanford in Avery Aquatc Center. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The UC Santa Barbara men’s water polo team was one of the enduring stories for 2019. A program record 16-match winning streak to open the season included wins in consecutive weeks against the nation’s #1 team. That success pushed the Gauchos to the top of the CWPA rankings for the first time ever.

[Changing of the Water Polo Guard: UC Santa Barbara #1 in CWPA Top 20]

A five-match losing streak, including one-goal losses to Pacific (twice), Stanford and USC, knocked Head Coach Wolf Wigo’s program back in the rankings, as did a four-goal loss to UCLA in early October, one of only two Gaucho losses by more than a single score.

ucsbEven in defeat, UCSB was a compelling story; a regular season-ending match against Golden Coast Conference rival Pepperdine turned into a free-for-all brawl that resulted in suspensions for four Gauchos and two Waves. These absences impacted a 9-8 overtime loss to the Waves in a GCC tournament semifinal. Even a decisive win over Pacific in their conference’s third-place match was not enough to advance UCSB to the NCAAs for the first time since 1991.

Swimming World checked in with Danny Roland, the Gaucho goalie who we spoke with early in the season. A transfer last August from UCLA, Roland was a key member in a memorable season that — 40 years after the program won its only NCAA title — was one of the most talked about in NCAA polo this season.

[Remembering the Remarkable ’79 UCSB Gauchos—NCAA Men’s Water Polo Champs]

– it was a great season on many respects for UC Santa Barbara. The team dealt with ups and downs in a season in what was a really an exciting ride for Gaucho fans.

The way I look at it, overall our season was very positive. For the most part, we’re a young team. We’re going to lose a couple of key players next year, but every year you lose players and you gain new ones. So people are going to have to step up.

The start of our season was phenomenal. We beat a lot of the top teams. I got to play against some of my best buddies in games and get a couple of wins, which was nice.

As far as that losing streak mid-season, I don’t look at it in a negative way. All those losses were against top-five teams, and we lost by one every single time except for the one we played UCLA [on October 11] and we lost by [four] when we had the flu all week.

UCSB vs Stanford

Teammates Connor Moynihan and Danny Roland. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

It’s all about our team growing for next year as well. But there’s no … I don’t like to look at anything in our past season as a negative for what our ultimate goal is, which is win conference and win NCAAs.

– We spoke early this season about how impressed you were with the camaraderie that Coach Wigo created. How did that cohesion play out throughout the course of the season?

One of the main things that I look at, my main point of view, is when we’re winning, we’re all happy, as it should be. But the best part was when we were on that losing streak, we never turned on each other.

Obviously, every team is going to have people getting on each other because they want them to get better, but it was never out of pure frustration or anger at a certain individual.

Our team was always sticking together, always pushing for one another and always doing everything they can for the team and not just for themselves, which I think is one of the biggest attributes for a team.

– Had you experienced this before, such as when you were at St. Francis Drake High School?

I think it’s very similar. Our Drake team, we were a group of guys from all within two miles of each other. And we were always hanging out, always knew where people wanted their passes, what they like to do in the pool, and it’s the same type of vibe that we have here at Santa Barbara.

– UCSB won four-straight at the end of your season, and then face a Pepperdine in the last regular season match, with conference seating on the line… and you end up brawling.

Water polo’s a physical sport — I mean, 90% of the game you’re either jabbing at someone or holding onto someone’s arm, not letting them go. It’s always physical and sometimes it just builds up. Sam [Nangle], our center, was having a good game and …

I have no idea what happened, but … they took Sam underwater. They took some shots, we took some shots. It’s kind of just the way water polo is, but I don’t think the refs should have let it get to that point because the previous three, four possessions,  you could see it was just getting chippier and chippier and chippier.

We lost a couple of players. They lost a couple of players for the next game.

– This reflect that stuff happens in the water, but the Gauchos are going to win together, they’re going to lose together and they’re going to stick up for each other.

We’re all-for-one and if a team, say Pepperdine, is going to take  shots at us we’re not going to just sit there and take it. We’re going to answer back. Every team does it. And every team has their own personal beef.

UCSB vs Stanford

Roland protecting the UCSB cage. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

We have nothing against Pepperdine. We’re always competitive when we play. And it got to the point where the refs weren’t calling anything, it was getting chippy, and a brawl broke out. And our team was there to protect Nangle who was surrounded by all of Pepperdine.

– You end up facing Pepperdine in the most important game of the season, a GCC semifinal. You just didn’t have enough to hold off the Waves.

Yeah, we’re missing Leo [Yuno] who’s one of our top scorers on the one-two side, but Nathan Puentes stepped up, which was nice. But it was, I think, a little weird for our team, because we usually have set lineups.

It’s not always the same, but players are going to have to jump into the first line, and then they’re going to be more tired if they go into the second line. It delays them more throughout the game and makes them more tired. I don’t think we were tired but it was just a different situation for us.

Pepperdine played a great game. I thought we played a great game too. It was a good battle. It just didn’t go our way.

The upshot is that not only did Pepperdine beat you, they beat Long Beach State in the final, and they’re going to NCAAs, as is Pacific, host to the tournament. With two conference teams in this year’s national championship tournament, it’s a great opportunity for the GCC to shine.

Both Pepperdine and UOP are great teams. I think UOP has a slight advantage just because they have home court. But Pepperdine’s a great team. They’re well-coached, but so is UOP. It’s going to be a really good battle.

[Pacific, Not UCLA, in as At-Large Team for 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament]

Unless Pepperdine loses to Davis in the first round, either way there’s going to be a GCC team in the top two, which is great for our league. It’s great for water polo in general, just different teams making it, not the same teams making the championship. And whoever ends up winning that semi-final, I think either of them can put up a fight against USC or Stanford.

I know that a Pepperdine vs. UOP match is going to be an absolute brawl just because there’s so much on the line for each team individually.

– Can a non-Pac-12 team win NCAAs for the first time since Pepperdine won in 1997?

I think it’s possible. There’s probably three to four teams that aren’t in the tournament, that could be in and still compete, which is awesome for the sport.

yuno-ucsb-02-sep19

UCSB’s Leo Yuno. Photo Courtesy: Jeff Liang

But I think both teams have an equal opportunity to come out with a championship. They’re both capable of doing it. So, I think they have a great opportunity.

– Does this season validate your decision to leave UCLA?

Yeah. One feeling I have is, when I was in the process of transferring schools and I was starting to narrow down my options, Santa Barbara was one of them.

And a lot of people kind of dislike Santa Barbara… as in, “Santa Barbara likes to party a lot,” blah blah, blah.

That’s what everyone’s first impression is. But our water polo team doesn’t associate with that stuff. We’re a whole different thing from the school. And it’s nice to kind of be able to tell people, “I told you so” in a way. And to be competing with this team for NCAAs.