Aug. 31, 2009

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com

With three straight CWPA championships, Navy has established itself as the class of the East.  Character, strong coaching and the ability to persevere has made the Midshipmen a team that has not only dominated their conference but has turned in admirable performances in the past two NCAA Tournaments.  However, with the graduation of All-American Mike Mulvey there is a growing sense that Navy is vulnerable this year.  The team with perhaps the best chance to capitalize is the host of this season’s NCAA Final Four.  Conveniently they are coached by an Annapolis graduate.  I got a chance to run three important questions by Luis Nicolao of Princeton and below is our interview.

With the amount of quality returners your team has coming back, Princeton has to be considered one of the favorites in the East.  What does Princeton have to do to make it to the Final Four which will be held in your pool?

We are very excited to be hosting NCAAs and know it would be a great thrill to be in it.  We have to stay focused all year and know that we have to work hard from the beginning and take it one game at a time.  

Can you tell us a little bit about Eric Vreeland and what makes him the special player that he is?

First of all he is left-handed, that makes a big difference.  What sets Eric apart is that he is so smart and intense.  He is our quarterback out there directing traffic and doing the little things that help us win.  Eric will do whatever it takes to win.  

Mike Merlone is the backbone of your defense and ranks as being one of the best goalies on the East Coast.  What makes him so effective between the pipes?  

Much like Eric he is an intense player that works his tail off to be the best.  Mike is special because he does a great job of anticipating the shot. He has great quickness which combined with his anticipation puts him in a position to make great saves.  

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While Princeton may be favored, the Midshipmen of Navy and the Bison of Bucknell are looming as not only the next two best teams in the CWPA South but also on the entire East Coast.  Navy will be led by returning All-American Kyle Wertz.  Wertz scored forty-eight goals last season and was the first freshman in Navy history to achieve All-American status.  Johnny Meiners and Kevin Bell are both solid contributors who are primed to have great senior seasons. 

Having a dominant offensive player who draws attention is critical in the sport of water polo.  Bucknell has that player in All-American Richie Hyden as he is the most dynamic scorer in the CWPA.  The lefty can go inside and be dominant at two-meter and he can also be lethal from the perimeter.  Hyden has a number of moves in his arsenal and can get his own shot anytime he wants.  Anchoring the defense for the Bison will be All-South goalie Nick Donahue.  Donahue is imposing at 6’8” and covers the corners of the cage very well.

Johns Hopkins, George Washington, Mercyhurst and Gannon will be in the mix for fourth place in the CWPA South.  Johns Hopkins lost Division III Player of the Year and All-American Josh Kratz to graduation and they will sorely miss the fifty-five goals and thirty-nine assists he brought to the table last season.  Also departing Johns Hopkins is fellow Division III All-Americans Alex Bond and Chris Hutchens.  The positive for Johns Hopkins is that they return sophomore Mark Strickland who was the CWPA South Rookie of the Year last fall.  They will need Strickland to blossom into a star that can carry their squad.  George Washington’s window closed last season when they lost David Zenk to a wrist injury.  With Zenk and Nick Eddy graduated, George Washington will be in rebuilding mode.  Jamaican National team player John Claude-Wright will be the focal point of the Colonial attack.  Mercyhurst is bringing back two-time Division II All-American goalie Andy Sekulski for his junior campaign.  Sekulski is the best goalie that nobody talks about and might be one of the ten best at the NCAA level.  Gannon could be a sleeper as they are returning quality talent in John Krakowski, Michael Piper and goalie Darren Stone.

On January 8, 2009, St. Francis was ruled ineligible to compete for the CWPA crown this season and that decision will have a dramatic effect on the CWPA Northern Division.  The North is shaping up to be an absolute free for all as Brown, Fordham, MIT, Iona and Harvard all have teams that will contend for the top spot.

MIT and Fordham return the most talent.  The Engineers are coming off a seventh-place finish at Easterns and bring back two Division III All-Americans in Devin Lewis and John Preis from that squad.  Keep an eye on their sophomore goalie, Columbus Leonard as he was playing good polo down the stretch of last season.  He had twenty-two saves at Eastern Championships including eight in a tight 15-13 loss to Princeton.

Fordham returns first-team All-North performer Alex Powell along with four other starters.  Powell might be the most underrated outside shooter in the entire country.  He is an All-American candidate whose shot rivals players like USC’s Justin Rappel and Stanford’s Wigo Brothers.  Powell is a threat to score anytime he is fouled outside five-meters.  There are two questions surrounding the Rams.  The first involves sophomore goalie Christian Flessner.  He is replacing departed All-North performer Timmy Will and will need to be solid in net.  The second involves the two-meter position.  Outside of the graduated Todd Conway, Fordham did not have a player who could consistently hold position at two-meters.  The Rams were constantly out of balance offensively, because their two-meter was setting on the four which meant that Fordham’s outside shooters were firing from seven to eight meters instead of from five to six meters.  The Rams will need to cultivate a true hole set if they want to bring a CWPA Northern Division banner to Rose Hill.  

Brown graduated four seniors including their superstar two-meter Mike Gartner.  The defending CWPA North regular season champions will still be a team to watch as they are bringing in one of the top ten recruits in the country in Serbian Youth National team player Svetozar Stefanovic.  The key to the Brown season will be how quickly Stefanovic can adapt to the U.S. college game. 

The Gaels of Iona lose all-North performer Patrick St. Cin along with a few other key contributors.  However, the Gaels will be returning the nation’s second leading scorer from last season in Joe Przekota.  His presence should keep Iona competitive in the North.  Harvard is returning a quality trio in the field as Bret Voith, Egen Atkinson and Luka Babic are all back for the Crimson.  Keep an eye on freshman Max Eliot as he could be an immediate contributor.  Harvard will be well-coached as Erik Farrar is a veteran of the East Coast water polo scene and is a master at getting the most out of his talent.