Aug. 17, 2010

 

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com


7-6.  One goal.  That was the difference between a star-studded USC squad and the upstart UCLA Bruins in last fall's NCAA Championship game.  That the Bruins were even that close is a testament to how they came together throughout the season as UCLA was a young squad that had several freshmen playing key roles.  That youth now has the benefit of NCAA experience and they are ready to claim the title that eluded them last fall.

With that as the backdrop, I caught up with UCLA's Head Coach earlier this month to talk Bruin water polo.  Last season was Adam Wright's first, however the longtime member of the United States National team coached like a wily veteran.  Wright is coming off a summer that saw him compete with Team USA in the FINA World League Super Finals and FINA World Cup.  We spoke after he returned from those events and below is our interview.

UCLA returns many key members from a team that lost by only one in last season's NCAA Championship game. You are considered by many to be the favorite. What does UCLA need to do to win an NCAA title?

"Every year your team changes. We lost some key players and how we fill those roles will determine a lot. In the conference we play in, there are only two bids available for NCAAs. That means every game is do or die and a lot of games come down to one goal. How we come together as a group and buy into the approach will be important."

Chay Lapin's graduation leaves a hole to fill in the cage for UCLA. Can you tell us about the goalie competition that is going on right now on your squad?

"This summer it has really been a good competition between Andrew Mesesan and Matt Rapacz and it is not settled yet. Neither has a lot of experience as Andrew is a redshirt junior while Matt is a redshirt sophomore. They have both come a long way and they are battling it out.  It is even.  We also brought in three goalies. It is going to be tough to replace Chay as he was a big reason why we went to NCAAs."

Ben Hohl spent time with the United States National team as he played at the Volvo Cup in February. I think he is one of the best lefties in the country. Can you tell us a little about him and what you expect from him this season?

"I got to play with Ben at that tournament in February so that was unique. I have big expectations for Ben as I think he can be a dominant player. There are not a lot of lefties in our sport and he is a great one. It will be important for our team's success that he be the player we think he can be. There were moments last year when he took over the game. With his success, he is going to be marked more closely this season and he will have to rise to the occasion. There was a reason he was called up to the National team and it is because he is very skilled."
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While UCLA is good, they are not the overwhelming favorite that USC was entering last season.  There are at least four other teams that I believe can go to sleep harboring legitimate NCAA Championship dreams.  The first two teams comprise arguably the greatest rivalry in water polo.  California and Stanford compete each season in an event simply known as the "Big Splash" and both squads return enough talent to make waves in December.

California loses an incredible talent in the graduated Spencer Warden; however they are boasting firepower all over the pool.  Four All-Americans are back for California in Ivan Rackov, Zach White, Brian Dudley and Cory Nasoff.  Rackov was the Golden Bears leading scorer last season and is a tremendous attacker.  Zach White is a force in two-meter and is arguably the best player at that position in the country.  Nasoff is tremendous on the counterattack and Dudley is a member of the South African National team and is somebody who can do a little bit of everything.  Wil Toppen won the starting goalie job last season and he is somebody who should only get better with experience.  California has both balance and talent and should be a factor all season long.

While Stanford lost three outstanding seniors in Drac Wigo, Janson Wigo and Jimmie Sandman, do not shed a tear for the Cardinal.  2008 First-team All-American Sage Wright returns from a redshirt year spent rehabbing a knee injury.  Wright will be one of the best all-around players at the collegiate level and he will lead a Cardinal squad that will remain a national title contender.  Complementing Wright will be two other returning All-Americans in Jacob Smith and Jeffrey Schwimer.

I have not spoken with one person that mentions USC as having a chance to win a third straight NCAA Championship.  It is not altogether surprising as they did lose an incredible cast that included a United States Olympian in J.W. Krumpholz, three other players who have spent time with the United States National team in Shea Buckner, Jordan Thompson and Matt Sagehorn along with a number of other standouts on which a championship foundation was built.  However, let me submit that I believe USC will be a factor down the stretch of this season.  The Trojans still return a top-five goalie in Joel Dennerley and while there is not the same level of experience in the field that they have boasted in previous years, there is still top-flight talent.  Most importantly, I think a team coached by Jovan Vavic will always be in the hunt to win a National title as his teams are always incredibly prepared for any situation they encounter.

One truism that I believe when it comes to water polo is that if you think two teams are equal, take one more look at the goalies and that will tell you which team is best.  If you believe that as well, then you must include a veteran Loyola Marymount squad as one of the five teams that are primed to compete for an NCAA Championship.  In Andy Stevens, Loyola Marymount boasts not just the best goalie but arguably the most accomplished returning player.  Stevens was the only current collegiate player that competed for the United States National team this past summer in the FINA World League Super Finals and FINA World Cup.  He is joined by a trio of elite offensive weapons in Tibor Forai, Edgaras Asajavicius and Andrew Aki.  Forai in particular has superstar talent and can dominate a game.  The Lions have lost the past two years in the Final Four by a combined two goals.  Do not be surprised if they finally climb that hurdle this season and play in the most important game on the season's final day.