“We Love This Sport and We Love Winning” Whittier, CMS Primed to Compete for DIII Men’s Water Polo Title

Whittier defeats MIT in the first semi-final of the Men's Division III National Championship held at the Lillian Slade Aquatics Center on the campus of Whittier College.
Whittier, hosts to the 2019 DIII Collegiate Water Polo National Championship, are fired up to win it all. Photo Credit: Tony Leon

WHITTIER, CA. It should come as little surprise to experienced polo fans that the two finalists for the first-ever DIII Collegiate Water Polo National Championship are both from California.

USA Water Polo logo DIII National Championship

Whittier and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps — rivals in the hyper-competitive Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) — advanced to Sunday’s final match at Whittier’s Lillian Slade Aquatic Center with wins over Eastern final four qualifiers Johns Hopkins and MIT.

[In Festive Opening to First-Ever DIII National Championship, Whittier and CMS Advance to Finals]

Given the shared history, there’s little love lost between the Whitter Poets and CMS Stags, who will meet on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. (PST). Both teams are eager to grasp gold in this new tournament.

“We’re competitive guys, we would take [a winning] attitude in any place,” said CMS attacker Christian Thronton, who led his team to a 14-11 semifinal win over Johns Hopkins with three goals. “The fact that it’s in the national championship… it doesn’t mean anything to me. I go into every game wanting to win — and everyone on this team does, too.”

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CMS Head Coach Greg Lonzo. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

The brash junior on Head Coach Greg Lonzo’s squad added that it’s all about the competition.

“It’s fun to play for trophies and titles but, ultimately, we love this sport and we love winning. One more title is just a bonus,” Thornton added.

His coach was decidedly more measured — and analytical — but conceded the same point: the Stags are looking to knock off the Poets in their pool.

“Going into that game against Whittier, we’re ultra-competitive,” Lonzo, now in his 13th year at Claremont, said after the win over the Blue Jays. “[Whittier’s] a team we think’s going to be good for a long time — and we plan on being good for a long time.”

There will be no secrets Sunday because the teams have faced each other three times this season, including the 2019 SCIAC Championship, won 13-12 by the Poets at home. Breaking down what might be decisive, Lonzo explained that it will be which team enjoys — or prevents — a scoring streak.

[First-Ever DIII Collegiate National Men’s Water Polo Championship Opens Saturday at Whittier]

“It’s going to be critical tomorrow [that], if we’re going to get that big run in the game, it’s going to be built off of playing great defense and creating opportunities,” he said. “It’s getting them on their heels, getting them into a zone defense, where they’re not really comfortable, and trying to get the tempo into one we like [and] that fits our structure.”

Lonzo added that the Stags’ success comes from an opportunistic defense. “We’re gonna play great defense and then exploit opportunities on the offensive side,” he said.

Which presents a compelling contrast to an offensively-driven Whittier attack.

There’s good reason to Fear the Poet

In two short years, Dave Kasa, head coach at Whittier  has built a deep and dangerous team, using decades-long connection to the rich California community college talent reservoir to quickly turn his men’s team into a contender. Talented JUCO players — including Micah Kamai, Dylan Woodhouse and Maxwell Murphy — have apparently meshed seamlessly with an established core of players to create a dangerous Poet squad.

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Whittier Head Coach David Kasa. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

A key addition to the 2019 squad was Domick Nevarez, who transferred from Cal Baptist. The result was a 2019 SCIAC Athlete of the Year award for the Norwalk, California native. And great chemistry with his new teammates, who quickly voted him one of the team captains.

Kasa pointed out that Nevarez inspired his teammates with his knowledge, passion and ability.

“By the end of [training] camp I would say Dom was the leader; his age, his experience, he’s a great teammate. But we nominated two leaders,” Kasa said about team’s leadership, which includes junior co-captain Hans Zdolsek.

A leader by example is Kamai, who transferred this year from Golden Valley West Community College.

“Micah happened to be one of the leaders who’s also a brand-new guy,” Kasa said. “But, he has been a captain and a leader before. He’s won championships before. Quite honestly, I brought him in because he’s a good center, but I also rought him in because he is a winner, a great student athlete and he is a leader.”

The Poets have beaten CMS twice in three meetings, including two weeks ago when Whittier took the SCIAC title. Kasa likely knew that the Stags were most likely to standing in the way of his program’s first national polo title this weekend.

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Whittier fans are very loyal to their Poets. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

After the Poets won 12-8 over MIT—and before the Stags had finished up against Hopkins — he spoke about his team’s primary rival this season.

“We’ve played CMS three times. We did play Johns Hopkins, so we’re going to watch the game,” Kasa said, then added: “I’ll be up late tonight” breaking down tape.

Giving credit to the Poets’ support throughout a season packed with success, he said that the fans have really lined up behind his team.

“We’ve been averaging a few hundred people every game, even at 11:00 AM games,” he said. “So it’s a really cool event, really supportive. We feel really relevant to play in front of that many people every night, no matter who the opponent.

”It’s made it a really special year. There’s a big buzz about this team this year and it’s because of all hard work they’ve put in,” he added.

Eric Borunda, a Whittier native whose two years with the team have proved to be very successful, said whomever the Poets play, they’ll stick to what they do best.

Whittier defeats MIT in the first semi-final of the Men's Division III National Championship held at the Lillian Slade Aquatics Center on the campus of Whittier College.

Whittier’s Micah Kamai. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

“We’re just going to stick to our goals,” he said. We’re going to play as a family and compete.”

Kamai, who knows Coach Kasa from his years coaching for Long Beach City College, agreed with his teammate about what Sunday’s final might bring.

“It’s just another game in that we have to focus, [but] obviously it’s a national championship,” the burly hole set said. “Some people will play with their hearts out, but also be calm in the center so that if anything doesn’t go our way, we can return to what’s brought us success.”

Which is what will make this fourth match-up between Whittier and CMS compelling; to follow all the action click here to stream the final.