Sometimes, success takes a little thinking outside the box.

That is exactly what UC San Diego mens water polo head coach Denny Harper did in preparation for this season. Now, in his 26th year at the helm of the Tritons program, Harper knew he had a special group of seniors last fall, but he also realized that the team would benefit if those six players stuck around while the younger ones gained a year of experience.

So, Harper decided to ask them if they would entertain the idea of redshirting in 2004 and playing their final year of eligibility in 2005 even though it was a little unusual.

The whole genesis of this idea was that if you want to do something special in the world of sports, it always helps if you have experience, said Harper.

The group --- Jonathan Hopkins, Travis Boettner, Brandon Borso, Steven Jendrusina, Clark Petersen and Kevin Smoker --- came back to Harper with a unanimous ˜yes.

These six all came to us as incoming freshmen in 2000 and they were excellent players from the get-go " most of them started for us as freshmen, said Harper. Theyve been major players for us over the last several years. Weve meshed the four or five outstanding players we had last year with these six.

In addition to improving individually and as a team, academics also influenced the groups decision " they are all in their final quarter at UCSD.

Theyve been such great kids, and their families were so special to us, too, that they werent quite ready to be done, said Harper.

With just a few games left in the regular season, the experiment seems to be working very well. The Tritons (20-6) are sixth in the national poll and 15-6 against nationally-ranked opponents. All six of UCSDs losses are to teams in the top five (No. 2 California, No. 3 Stanford, No. 4 UCLA, No. 5 Pepperdine - three times).

They got bigger, strong and Im happy to say at this point are playing some pretty good water polo, said Harper.

Hopkins leads the Tritons with 65 goals and 49 assists, and ranks second in the nation in goals scored, while Borso has contributed 49 goals, good for 10th in the national statistics.

Sitting on the bench and watching was not easy for the group, but Harper was committed to the decision.

They certainly had a lot to do with making our eligible players much more competitive than I thought they would have been, said Harper. We finished 11th in the national poll. It was an outstanding year and we only had one senior playing.

UCSD is a non-scholarship program that competes at the Division II level, but plays mainly against Division I competition, including Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara as a member of the Western Water Polo Association.

The NCAA Championship is open to all divisions, but only has a four-team tournament for the 46 institutions that sponsor the sport. The Tritons have advanced to the NCAA Tournament in nine of the last 13 seasons, and are the only Division II team to advance to the championship game after beating Southern California, 9-8, in the national semifinals.

I think these kids are really the epitome of a student-athlete, said Harper. I think on any given day we can beat anybody, and have already demonstrated that, but its still not easy chore to beat teams in the top five.

Harper believes UCSDs success over the years -- his next win will be the 450th of his career -- is a product of consistency in the coaching staff, incredible facilities and excellent support from the athletic department, despite not having the advantage of offering scholarships.

We are pretty realistic that we are going to lose ˜X amount of kids because they will get a scholarship, said Harper. We know that and support that. There are plenty of other kids that can play, like this group that we have now. I guess we go after sixes and sevens and try to turn them into nines and 10s by the time they are upperclassmen.

After finishing out the regular season, UCSD will compete in the WWPA Tournament for a shot at its 14th league title since the conference formed in 1981. The Tritons will need to win the league championship for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Its never an easy chore, said Harper. There are five teams that could beat us if were not careful.

The winner of the WWPA joins the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and Collegiate Water Polo Association champions as the automatic qualifiers of the championship, and an at-large team is selected to complete the NCAA bracket. The national championship will be held in Lewisburg, Pa., on December 3-4 and will be hosted by Bucknell University.