Aug. 19, 2010

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com

Year in and year out the MPSF is water polo's dominant conference and this year is no exception as four of the best five teams in the nation reside here. This conference is strong at the top and is brimming with quality all the way down. While the conference saw a number of great players graduate, every single one of these teams has former high school All-Americans ready to step into the fray and be successful.

One school that many have pegged to be a national title contender is California. The Golden Bears are no stranger to winning NCAA Championships and Kirk Everist has another tremendous team ready to make their bid. The two-time United States Olympian has led the Golden Bears to two NCAA titles in his eight seasons at Berkeley with the last one coming in 2007. Earlier this month, I had a chance to lob a few questions at California's leader and below is our interview.

California has a number of key parts returning from last season. What do the Golden Bears have to do to return to NCAAs and bring home a national title?

"Consistency is the key for us in a long and competitive season. We cannot afford to let down at any point because it is such a tight race to make it into the national championship tournament."

Ivan Rackov is an elite player who was your leading scorer last season. Can you tell us what makes him the great player he is?

"Ivan has great awareness in the pool. He is always thinking two and three steps in advance of every play. This helps him, both offensively and defensively."

Zach White is an absolute monster in two-meter. What makes him the outstanding hole set that he is?

"Obviously his size is a key at 6-4, 220 pounds, and being left-handed is always a plus. Zach has been a great contributor for us ever since his freshman year and we expect more of the same from him this year."

As good as California will be heading into next season, the MPSF favorite is the team that came up one goal short in last season's NCAA title tilt. While UCLA loses MPSF Player of the Year Scott Davidson, All-American goalie Chay Lapin and All-American two-meter Cole Consani, the cupboard is not bare for the defending MPSF Tournament Champions. UCLA returns a trio of All-Americans in lefty Ben Hohl (who played with the United States National team in February at the Volvo Cup), Griffin White and the speedy Cullen Hennessy. Jacob Murphy is also back and he also has U.S. National team experience as he represented Team USA at the Volvo Cup. Other returning standouts from UCLA's run to the NCAA Championship game include Josh Samuels, Brett Hays, Bret Lathrope and Emilio Viera. The biggest question for the Bruins will be in the cage as either Matt Rapacz or Andrew Mesesan will be taking over for the graduated Chay Lapin.

USC is the two-time defending NCAA Champion and they will be competitive despite graduating their championship core. Australian National team goalie Joel Dennerley is the most high-profile returnee and he is considered to be one of the top five goalies at the NCAA level. Other key contributors from last year's title push are Peter Kurzeka, Matt Burton and Brian Boswell. USC has brought in a strong class of newcomers to fortify their squad. Keep an eye on Cal transfer Brian Roach and U.S. Junior National teamer Nikola Vavic (the left-handed freshman is the son of head coach Jovan Vavic).

The Trojans are not the only top-tier squad that will be trying to replace a strong senior class as Stanford will need to reload for the upcoming season. The Cardinal have to replace three All-Americans in Drac Wigo, Janson Wigo and Jimmie Sandman. Stanford does have two All-Americans returning in Jacob Smith and Jeffrey Schwimer; however the big return is of Sage Wright who redshirted last fall with a knee injury. If Sage Wright is healthy, he is Stanford's best player as Wright was a first-team All-American in 2008. Wright is devastating on the counterattack, possesses an outstanding perimeter shot and is a highly underrated defender. Stanford's big question is in the cage as whoever steps in for Jimmie Sandman has big shoes to fill. Junior Brian Pingree and Sophomore Scott Platshon are the likely candidates.

There are teams lurking outside of the traditional "Big Four" that look ready to make noise this year. Those two teams are UC-Santa Barbara and the University of Pacific. UCSB brings back a number of key contributors with the headliner being Milos Golic. Golic was an All-American last fall and he might be the most dynamic offensive player in the country. He is joined by another returning All-American in Zsombor Vincze. The Gauchos also bring back key parts at the most important positions in the pool as two-meter Noah Smith and goalie Fraser Bunn are also back.

Up in Stockton, Pacific has quietly built a very strong side as they return MPSF Newcomer of the Year Goran Tomasevic along with just about every other key part of last year's squad. Pacific will boast a nice inside game with Tomasevic, Lance Morrison and redshirt Jasper Visser. Those three hole sets will be complemented by an outside game that already boasts two underrated talents in Tom Koning and Joey Gullikson. That perimeter game should be even better this season as James Graham brought in another outstanding recruiting class. Pacific has three players coming in that will have an immediate impact. Hungarian National team player Balazs Erdelyi is the headliner and is the favorite for MPSF Newcomer of the Year honors. Hungary is considered the preeminent country in the world of water polo and has won the past three Olympic Gold Medals. Pacific adding a player who has experience with their National team is something that cannot be downplayed. The Tigers also brought in two players with Israeli Senior National team experience in lefty Daniel Lungu and goalie Alex Malkis. The 6'5" Malkis is currently the starting goalie on Israel's Senior National team and is the most likely candidate to replace the departed David Andrus.

Pepperdine, UC-Irvine and Long Beach State will all be top ten teams heading into the fall. The Waves graduated key parts in All-Americans J.P. MacDonell and Clayton Snyder and will need to rebuild around Andrew Milcovich. UC-Irvine loses two All-Americans from last season in Cole Bielskis and Tom Kruip; however they return an All-American lefty in Brandon Johnson. The Anteaters are known for getting more dangerous as the season progresses and I do not expect this year to be any different. Long Beach State could be a sleeper as they return their leading scorer and All-MPSF performer Aleksander Petrovic. He is joined by a highly regarded recruiting class headlined by two players with U.S. Junior National team experience in Nick Rascon and Dan Matulis.