Aug. 18, 2010

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com

East Coast water polo is riding high after a very well-attended NCAA Championships culminated in Princeton finishing a shocking third place at their home pool.  That momentum should carry into the upcoming season as a number of teams are returning stacked rosters.  Parity is a word that can be used to describe the Eastern fray as there is no clear cut favorite entering the upcoming campaign.

One squad that is rich in returning talent is the Bison of Bucknell.  They are led by an outstanding Head Coach in John Abdou who is coming off a summer that saw him serve as the Assistant Coach for the United States National “B” team.  I caught up with Coach Abdou in late July and we chatted about his squad and the fact that many consider Bucknell the team to beat on the East Coast.  Below is what Coach Abdou had to say.

Many people have your Bison pegged as the favorites to win the East and grab an NCAA Final Four bid. A top seed at the ECAC Championship tournament in September is evidence of that. What does Bucknell need to do to make the Final Four a reality?

“We cannot go into the season looking at ourselves as the favorite.  We need to think of ourselves as the underdogs.  We need to work hard in every practice and competitive situation.  If we take advantage of those opportunities wisely then we have just as good a shot as any other team on the east coast.  We cannot focus on the end result as results are a bi-product of what we do on a daily basis.”

Richie Hyden is one of the top left-handers in the country and one of the best overall players on the East Coast. What are you expecting out of him in his senior campaign?

“Richie’s success this season will have a lot to do with the guys around him.  It’s never been about one player on any successful team.  We are going to need everyone’s effort and a “Team Before Self” mindset.  We are going to be looking for leadership out of Richie as he needs to help lead the team to its fullest potential.”

Sean Coghlan is an underrated player for your squad. What makes him so effective?

“Sean never stops working.  People who watch our team are surprised by his ability to keep going.  Sean does a great job of drawing ejections and setting his teammates up for scoring opportunities.  Once again though, Sean is a valuable part of a team that will need to come together if we expect success.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Navy will be the most formidable challenger to Bucknell in the South.  The Midshipmen return All-American Luke Baldwin, CWPA Southern Division Player of the Year Kyle Wertz and an outstanding two-meter in Stevie Ray.  The one glaring hole for Navy is in the cage as All-American goalie Brett Rajchel graduated.  Navy will be looking to either junior Chase Hansen or sophomore Anthony Gutierrez to fill the void.  If Navy gets solid goalie play, they have the firepower to find their way back to an NCAA Final Four.

Princeton had a season for the ages last fall as they qualified for the NCAA Final Four and won the NCAA third-place game.  However, the Tigers graduated a number of key parts from that squad and will need to rebuild around goalie Mike Merlone and two-meter Jeff Cole.  Johns Hopkins has a nice squad coming back for the upcoming campaign as sophomore Alex Whittam will look to build on an outstanding freshman campaign that saw him earn Division III All-American and All-Conference honors.  Senior Jeremy Selbst was also a Division III All-American and he is back for a Blue Jays team that placed a program-best fourth at Easterns last fall.  My sleeper in the CWPA Southern Division is Mercyhurst as they brought in an outstanding recruiting class and boast a tremendous goalie in three-time Division II All-American Andy Sekulski.  The 6’5” Sekulski has quietly been one of the best goalies on the East Coast over the past three years and is somebody who deserves more national attention.

There are three teams in the CWPA Northern Division that can harbor realistic NCAA Final Four dreams and they are Brown, Fordham and St. Francis.  The Bears and Rams battled for Northern Division superiority last season as the two squads shared the regular season title and split in their postseason matchups at the Northern Division and CWPA Eastern Championships.  While both teams return the bulk of their squads they each have a question mark.  All-American Svetozar Stefanovic is back to lead the Brown attack and he is joined by All-Conference standouts Gordon Hood and Corey Schwartz.  The buzz you hear in Providence is about their recruiting class and the arrival U.S. Junior National team player James McNamara.  McNamara is a long player with a tremendous outside shot and should be the best freshman on the East Coast this season.  The question mark with Brown is in the cage.  All-American Kent Holland has graduated and his job will fall either to untested junior Max Lubin or freshman Walter Shockley.  

Like Brown, Fordham returns almost everybody from last season and that includes All-American two-meter Ali Arat (also a member of Turkey’s National team) along with All-Conference standouts Mikey Edwards and Ryan Hultman.  Their attack is also bolstered by the return to health of 2008 All-Conference performer Alex Powell.  Powell had shoulder issues that caused him to miss most of last season.  His return to health is key as his outside shooting can open up the pool even more for Ali Arat and Mikey Edwards in two-meter.  Powell is a huge variable for the Rams.  I have watched him for the past three years and he has All-American ability. If Powell can play to that level, the Rams can win the East.  Fordham’s biggest question mark is on defense and in the cage.  Incumbent goalie Christian Flessner battled consistency problems last season.  Look for him to be challenged by incoming freshmen Eric Mullery and Teddy Rasmussen.  Fordham needs to tighten up and limit the amount of “soft” goals they allow.  The Rams boast an offense that is outstanding; however their defense needs to catch up.

St. Francis is back competing in the Northern Division again and the Terriers return a number of key contributors with the most important being goalie Nikola Djuric.  Djuric is an incredible talent and gives St. Francis a huge advantage over their Northern Division rivals.  Marko Gencic and Aleksandar Pantic are also back for the Terriers and they are both offensive machines.  As always, St. Francis boasts an array of international talent and the “Small College of Big Dreams” will be a factor for that NCAA Final Four bid.