Sept. 10, 2009

By Trevor Freeman
Special to

Labor Day weekend marked the kickoff of water polo season and it was highlighted by action in both San Diego and Annapolis.  Four of the top seven ranked teams in the country competed at the Triton Invitational while second-ranked Stanford and fourth-ranked California joined host Navy at their annual Labor Day Open.  Before we get started covering the opening weekend’s action, an announcement was made that will have a profound effect on both the MPSF and NCAA title picture.  On Wednesday, Stanford confirmed on their website that Sage Wright will be redshirting this season due to a knee injury suffered over the summer.  Wright is a two-time first-team All-American who can dominate at both ends of the pool.  Stanford will need multiple players to step up their game as Wright cannot be replaced by one person.

How Stanford would respond this weekend and will respond over the rest of the season will be a key storyline.  If this weekend is any indication, the Cardinal still look eager and ready to get back to the NCAA Championship game.  Stanford blasted eighteenth-ranked Bucknell, Johns Hopkins and George Washington by a combined score of 59-10.  Their final game of the Open was against the host and twelfth-ranked Midshipmen and the Cardinal were able to score a 16-7 victory behind four goals from Janson Wigo and ten saves from Jimmie Sandman.  Fourth-ranked California was just as impressive as they knocked off eighteenth-ranked Bucknell, twelfth-ranked Navy and Iona.

While two national title challengers were feasting out in Annapolis, the champs were in San Diego and they were already looking like a finely tuned machine.  USC blitzed Pomona-Pitzer and nineteenth-ranked Air Force on day one of the Triton Invitational by a combined score of 32-7.  Those two games served as a warm-up for the season’s first big clash as the Trojans faced sixth-ranked Loyola Marymount in the tournament’s semifinals.  Last season at the Triton Invitational, USC and LMU engaged in a triple-overtime classic that may well have been the closest scare USC received during their entire undefeated campaign.  While some of the cast were departed from that classic, this matchup had compelling characters involved as four players who played with the United States National team this summer were in the water.  J.W. Krumpholz, Matt Sagehorn and Shea Buckner returned to lead the Trojans while Andy Stevens was between the pipes for the Lions.

While this matchup was not the 10-9 thriller of last year, LMU never let USC run away from them.  The Trojans were able to build up a 6-2 lead and grind out an 11-6 victory.  Matt Sagehorn led USC with three goals while Justin Rappel, Anthony Artukovich and Peter Kurzeka each chipped in two.  USC followed up their victory over LMU in the semifinals with a dominating tournament championship victory over seventh-ranked UCSB.  Twelve players scored in a 15-5 victory.  The four Triton Invitational wins extended USC’s winning streak to 33 games.  The NCAA record for consecutive victories is 51 and that was set by the 1985-1986 Stanford Cardinal.

Loyola Marymount rebounded from their semifinal loss to USC by knocking off fifth-ranked Pepperdine 9-6 in the third place game.  Goalie Andy Stevens was incredible in the win over Pepperdine as he notched seventeen saves in the Lions victory.  Sixth-ranked Loyola Marymount also scored wins over Pomona-Pitzer and nineteenth-ranked Air Force on the weekend.  UCSB reached the Triton Invitational championship game by defeating fifth-ranked Pepperdine 8-7 and tenth-ranked UC San Diego 15-12.  One other significant result from the Triton Invitational was Air Force upsetting tournament host UC San Diego 14-12 on the final day.  Cruz Smithson scored five times in leading the Falcons to their first win over a top ten opponent in five years.

The MIT Open played host to several ranked squads but one team stole the show.  Thirteenth-ranked Pacific looked much better than that ranking this weekend as they defeated MIT, Harvard, Redlands, seventeenth-ranked Brown and sixteenth-ranked St. Francis.  The dividends of this year’s stellar recruiting class is already paying off for Coach James Graham as the star of their 8-4 win over St. Francis was freshman goalie Tomislav Bujas.  Bujas had eleven saves against the Terriers while fellow freshman Goran Tomasevic and Balazs Szabo each contributed two goals in the Tigers win.  Pacific won their other four games by a combined score of 61-19.  Sophomores Tom Koning and Lance Morrison were a part of James Graham’s first recruiting class and they sparkled in those four victories.

Whittier is a team that is receiving a lot of attention due to a recruiting class that was loaded with high-profile transfers.  The Poets began their campaign against SCIAC rivals La Verne and Chapman and were victorious in both contests.  Mercyhurst transfer and former first-team Division II All-American Alex Perry led the way in the 14-11 win over La Verne as he netted six goals.  Pepperdine transfer Uriel Villa was also impressive for the Poets as he tallied four goals on the afternoon including three during a critical third-quarter stretch against Chapman in Whittier’s 11-9 win.  This is not a bad start for a Whittier team that just started practicing on August 26th.  The Poets have a big game scheduled for next Saturday as they will be visiting Loyola Marymount.  This will be an interesting measuring stick for a team on the rise.

Player of the Week

Andy Stevens, Loyola Marymount, Jr.:  For those scoring at home, saving seventeen shots in a water polo match is roughly the equivalent of scoring fifty points in a basketball game or scoring four touchdowns in a football game.  Doing it against the fifth-ranked team in the country makes it even more impressive.  An honorable mention award needs to be given to Pacific freshman goalie Tomislav Bujas.  Bujas was outstanding against St. Francis at the MIT Open and will be a name to remember as he was considered one of the top young goalkeepers in the water polo mad country of Croatia. 

Game to Watch

The Princeton Invitational is this weekend and the marquee game is on Friday night between third-ranked UCLA and the eleventh-ranked host.  Fifteenth-ranked Santa Clara is also making the cross-country flight and will face Princeton on Saturday night.