Oct. 18, 2010

by Trevor Freeman

Special to NCAA.com

The calendar is edging closer to November which means the action in the pool is getting livelier. For a second week in a row, top-ranked USC was defeated and this loss will most surely drop them from their number one perch in the rankings. We are officially into conference play and with that the scores are narrowing. We will get into that and more in this weeks column.

We begin with one of the great stories in mens water polo. Nestled in the ninth spot in the national rankings are the Tritons of UC-San Diego. They are coached by the legendary Denny Harper who has notched over five hundred and twenty-five victories in his thirty years at the helm. One of his signature accomplishments is leading UC-San Diego to the NCAA Championship game in 2000 where the program became the first non-Division I team to play for an NCAA title in mens water polo. Their program and its success is something that the NCAA can be proud of as they epitomize the term student-athlete”. UC-San Diego only gives out $500 athletic scholarships which means all these kids pay tuition and play for the love of the game. I sat down with Coach Harper prior to his win over Santa Clara and loss to UC-Davis. Below is our interview.

UC-San Diego is coming off a big SoCal Tournament which saw the program score its first victories over Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine since 2006. What does UCSD need to do to build on this performance and challenge for an NCAA Final Four bid?

"I thought we were building off of that and then we lost on Friday night to a very good Long Beach State team. I think we are coming of age and are becoming a very good team. We are in that 6-12 zone and I think heading into the SoCal Tournament that there were some doubters in terms of if we belonged in that group. I do think we will be in the hunt for our fifteenth WWPA Tournament Championship."

David Morton had a fabulous SoCal Tournament. Can you tell us a little bit about his progression in the cage?

"Like most goalies, the muscle that coaches worry most about is in-between his ears. I think as David has been getting it together that he has become one of the top goalies in the NCAA. He did not play well against Stanford in the first game of that tournament. We scored twelve goals but we gave up twenty-two goals which is unacceptable. All the stars aligned for David in the game against Concordia who was ranked ahead of us at the time at that tournament. David set a school record with twenty-one saves in that win and he set the tone for the guys. He was also strong on Sunday against Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount and only gave up six goals last Friday night against Long Beach State."

Brian Donahoe is currently leading your team in goals. Can you tell us what makes him the effective player that he is?

"Brian plays with a really, really big heart. If you saw him on the pool deck you would laugh that he has been our most consistent strike zone performer. He is not that big. However, Brian plays with passion. I think Brian underestimated the jump from high school to the college level and had to eat some humble pie in his first season. He has been coming along and is leading our team in scoring."

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

The result of the weekend had to be second-ranked California controlling first-ranked USC in winning 12-9. The Golden Bears went up 5-0 in the first quarter and never looked back in posting the crucial conference victory. Justin Parsons had an impressive ten saves while Ivan Rackov posted a hat trick in the Cal win. Not only will this victory move California back into the top spot in the polls, but they have arguably passed their two toughest conference tests in defeating third-ranked UCLA and USC the past two weeks. Meanwhile, the Trojans have to be reeling. After winning the NorCal and SoCal tournament titles, it looked like USC was steaming towards another NCAA appearance. Losses the past two weeks to Stanford and Cal have thrown that into doubt. USC still has conference games at home against UCLA and on the road against fifth-ranked UC-Irvine and those are now must-win” games with USC sporting a 1-2 conference mark.

It was Friday Night Lights at UCLA as the Bruins took on fourth-ranked Stanford in front of a packed house in an exciting end of week tilt. The game was not decided until Ben Hohl scored his third goal with fifty seconds left to hand the Bruins a 9-8 victory. That goal wrapped up a huge fourth quarter for UCLA as the Bruins rallied from being down 7-5 to pick up an important conference victory. The road trip was not a complete disaster for Stanford as they defeated sixth-ranked UCSB on Sunday 8-6 behind two goals each from Sage Wright and Jacob Smith.

In other West Coast action, fifth-ranked UC-Irvine defeated eighth-ranked Long Beach State 9-7 to move to 13-3 overall and more importantly to 2-0 in the MPSF behind hat tricks from Tom Kruip and Doug Lindsey. Tenth-ranked Loyola Marymount won three on the trot against sixteenth-ranked Pomona-Pitzer, Chapman and Air Force. It should be noted that these were the first three home games for LMU after playing over a month on the road.

Out East, fifteenth-ranked St. Francis clinched the regular season title in the CWPA Northern Division with wins over Harvard and MIT by a combined score of 39-14. Meanwhile, eighteenth-ranked Navy moved into a tie in the CWPA Southern Division with a 9-4 win over Bucknell and a 7-6 sudden death triple-overtime victory over seventeenth-ranked Princeton. Navys contest was decided on a power-play goal from Luke Baldwin with forty-seconds left in third overtime period. The goal was Baldwins third of the day and it moved Navy to a record of 18-5 on the season. It needs to be noted that Navy played both of these games on Saturday with their game at Bucknell being a noon start and their contest at Princeton starting at 7:30. That means over a seven and a half hour period, Navy played the Bison and then travelled approximately three and a half hours to play the Tigers.

Player of the Week

Svetozar Stefanovic, Brown, Soph.: Stefanovic scored five goals to lead Brown to a 12-9 rivalry victory over Harvard. The former captain of the Serbian Youth National team and freshman James MacNamara (U.S. Junior National team member) quietly give Brown a nice one-two punch.

Contest to Watch

UC-Irvine plays UCLA in a key conference test. Here is an interesting note about the importance of this game. If UC-Irvine pulls the upset here, the Anteaters would quietly be in extremely good shape in the MPSF title race as they play California, USC and UCSB at home. The only other conference road game that UC-Irvine has remaining after UCLA is against Stanford late in the season.