Nov. 17, 2008

 

by Trevor Freeman

 

 

 

With the NCAA Final Four only three weeks away, our focus for this week’s column is on a team that many feel has a chance to wreak havoc at the event.  The Lions of Loyola Marymount entered this season returning many key contributors from a squad that made the Final Four last season.  Thus far, they have done nothing to dissuade the notion that they are a team that could be playing for an NCAA Championship on the first Sunday of December. I got a chance to speak with their Assistant Coach Kyle Witt during the week about his team.  Many might remember Kyle Witt from his playing days as he was an outstanding hole set.  Witt led Loyola Marymount to an NCAA Final Four in 2001 and is tied for sixth on LMU’s all-time scoring list.  Below is our interview.

 

Loyola Marymount has been in the top six all season long and enters the WWPA Tournament with UC San Diego as the presumptive favorites.  What does your team have to do to win WWPAs and get to the Final Four?

 

The WWPA tournament has gotten more and more competitive as the years have rolled along.  Going into the tournament as the number one seed has proven to not mean much over the last few years.  The last team to win the tournament as the top seed was LMU in 2005.  In 2006, we were the favorites and lost to UC San Diego.  In 2007, Davis was the favorites and we beat them in the finals.  Everyone is predicting a San Diego vs. LMU final but that is far from a guarantee.  Some of the top teams in the tournament have some top level coaching that have been with their respective schools for years.  UCSD has Denny Harper with twenty-eight years at UCSD, UC Davis has Steve Doten in his eighth year, Santa Clara has Keith Wilbur in his seventh season, and Redlands has Tom Whittemore in his twentieth season as well.  When you have coaches that have been at their schools for this long they both know how to coach and how to play against their conference rivals.  I think that this will be as competitive a tournament as it has been in a while with LMU currently ranked sixth in the country, UCSD ranked at eighth, UC Davis ranked at eleventh, Santa Clara ranked at fourteenth, and Redlands ranked at sixteenth.

 

Is there any added pressure entering this tournament being the defending WWPA Champions and for lack of a better word, the hunted?

 

Obviously when you are the hunted you have a lot more people trying to catch up to you and you are going to get everyone’s best shot on a game by game basis.  Our athletes are not feeling the pressure of being a number one seed this season because we have put pressure on them with every game that we have played and they have responded to every obstacle that has been thrown at them with flying colors.  We have played numerous games without some of our better players due to injury or illness and the guys have responded just fine.  When you can respond to as much adversity as we have had over the season and still come out ahead, you have confidence going into your conference tournament that no matter what other teams are throwing at you, you will be able to absorb it and respond.

 

I'm a huge Andy Stevens fan.  In fact, if I had an All-America vote, I would put him on the first team.  Tell us a little bit about him and what makes him the elite goaltender that he is.

 

I think that strong goaltending has always been a focal point of any LMU team.  Our ability to constantly recruit and develop top level goalkeepers has allowed for us to run whatever system that we would like and usually allows us to have one of the lowest goals against average in the country.  I believe that Andy is an elite goaltender because he wants to compete everyday.  No matter what the situation is, he wants to win.  He wants to take down our top shooters in practice; he wants to stop every five-six opportunity that an opponent earns against us.  You name it, and the kid wants to win the competition.  When you compete like that on a daily basis and never accept losing, you are not going to come up short very often.  Andy has played great for us all season and with his tapering finally starting to kick in and allow for him to get his legs back, he is looking even better than he was a few weeks ago.

 

Tibor Forai had his nose broken earlier this season.  I had my nose broken once and I know that I never really adjusted to wearing that mask.  How is he adjusting and what kind of postseason do you think he has in store?

 

To be honest this injury really hasn’t affected Tibor that much at all.  He had to sit out for six games and it took a little while to adjust to the mask that he was wearing but that was really all that happened with the injury.  Tibor has been leading the team in most offensive categories since he returned and he has been doing a great job of setting up his teammates for their offense as well.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about Julien Lormant, Tim Hummel, Mark Milovic and Tim Heafner and what they have meant to your program?

 

These four seniors have led our team through so many tough times that it is going to be really hard to see them go.  Most seniors around this time get a bit of the senioritis and don’t really want to listen to coaches much more because they have heard their voices for four straight years and they just want to go out and play.  These seniors have listened to the coaching staff all the way through and are buying into our late season coaching adjustments and our game planning for our conference opponents.  One of our old assistant coaches at LMU, Max Miyahara, used to say that right about this time of year is when all seniors would turn back into freshmen.  This is not the case with this group and they are excited to attack this conference tournament and not take any opponent for granted.

 

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Top-ranked USC and third-ranked Stanford met up on the Farm this weekend and it was a thriller that came down to USC’s Joel Dennerley making a save with one second left on the clock to secure perfection for the Trojans.  In front of a packed house at Avery Aquatics Center, Stanford jumped on USC and got out to a 3-1 first quarter lead.  Janson Wigo scored two of his three goals in that first quarter for the Cardinal.  However, USC kept their heads down and were able to recover their footing in this hostile environment and cut the lead to 4-3 at the half.  Only one goal was scored in the third period and it was by USC’s Justin Rappel.  In the deciding fourth, Justin Rappel scored his second with 2:43 left to put USC up by one goal and then freshman Peter Kurzeka followed up with another score for the Trojans at the 1:28 mark.  With the game falling away from his team, Stanford’s Sage Wright scored with 1:12 left to cut the USC lead to one.  Dennerley’s heroics came into play when Stanford drew a power play with twelve seconds left.  Stanford worked the ball around and got a shot with one second on the clock.  However the Australian would save the day.  Joel Dennerley was the star of the game for USC as he had twelve saves for the Trojans.  With this win, USC clinched the MPSF title and a perfect regular season.  For Stanford, their losing streak is now at two games with “The Big Splash” staring them in the eye next week.  That game becomes a must-win for the Cardinal as a loss there could drop them into a third place finish in the MPSF (Stanford’s MPSF record is currently 5-2).

 

The other participant heading into “The Big Splash” are the fourth-ranked Golden Bears of California and they completed a very successful weekend in defeating Long Beach State 11-10 in triple overtime and following that up with an 8-6 win over UC-Irvine.  In the Long Beach State game, California was able to overcome an 8-5 fourth quarter deficit to force overtime.  After trading goals in the first two overtimes, Brian Dudley struck in the sudden death period to give California a huge win.  The Golden Bears came back the next day and were able build an 8-4 lead by the third quarter and then hold off the Anteaters.  Cory Nasoff and Brian Dudley each had two goals in the victory for California which moved them to 3-3 in the MPSF.  All was not lost for the 49ers of Long Beach State as they defeated Pacific 13-6 on Sunday to clinch the eighth and final spot in the MPSF Tournament.  Pavle Filipovic had three goals in the Long Beach State win.

 

At the site of last week’s shocker of the season, seventh-ranked UCSB entertained second-ranked UCLA.  The Gauchos were hoping to make it two weeks in a row of wins over teams ranked second in the national polls.  The start was encouraging as the Gauchos jumped out to an early 2-0 lead.  Then the Bruins awoke and shut the Gauchos out for twenty-one minutes and fourteen seconds.  During that time, UCLA scored eleven goals and put the game away.  Ben Hohl found the back of the net four times and Scott Davidson added three goals for the Bruins.  Chay Lapin chipped in six saves for a UCLA team that moved to 5-2 in MPSF play.  The following day in Santa Barbara, Pepperdine got an Adam Hewko goal with 2:26 left in the fourth quarter to score a 10-9 win over the Gauchos.  This sets up a monster clash next week as Pepperdine moved to 5-2 in the MPSF with their win over UCSB.  The Waves and the Bruins will meet in Malibu.  The winner of this game will finish no worse than third in the MPSF and will have a chance at second place should Cal knock off Stanford.

 

The SCIAC was the site of the weekend’s biggest upset as Cal Lutheran beat Redlands in the semifinals of that conference’s championship tournament.  Redlands entered the tourney as the only ranked team in the field as they boasted a national ranking of sixteenth.  Cal Lutheran got monster games from Jeff Chaney and Matt Heagy as they each put five goals on the board in the contest.  Jordan Bouey added eleven saves in the 13-11 upset victory.  Cinderella’s SCIAC Championship dreams would dissolve in the Championship game as defending champion Pomona-Pitzer beat Cal Lutheran 12-9 to win the SCIAC.  Ben Hadley scored four goals in the Championship game for the Sagehens.  Pomona-Pitzer always seems to close out seasons on a high note and could be a spoiler at the upcoming WWPA Championships.  They are a very well-coached water polo team.    

 

Player to Watch

 

Ben Hadley, Pomona-Pitzer, Soph.:  Hadley scored eleven goals to lead the Sagehens to a second consecutive SCIAC Championship.  The sophomore was second-team All-SCIAC as a freshman and should make the first string this season.  Hadley is one of the most underrated players in the country and is somebody who should creep onto the national radar over the next two seasons. 

 

Contest to Keep An Eye On

 

The WWPA and CWPA Eastern Championships both take place this weekend.   Sixth-ranked Loyola Marymount and twelfth-ranked St. Francis have to be considered the presumptive favorites in each tournament.  In the WWPA, I cannot see any team other than Loyola Marymount or eighth-ranked UC San Diego winning.  I think the Lions are slightly better than the Tritons due to their edge in the cage as well as the overall depth of their team.  However, the Tritons are a better team in the trenches (i.e. at 2-Meter Offense and Defense) and they have great veteran experience.  Loyola Marymount is my call in the WWPA but it would not surprise me if UCSD claimed the WWPA crown.

 

The East should be a little more interesting as I think there are five teams that can walk away with this tournament.  I like Princeton and Brown to win their first round games and face off in one semifinal.  Princeton beat Brown by five goals in both regular season matchups.  I think Brown tightens the game up but falls short by a couple goals.  On the other side of the bracket, I like St. Francis and Navy to meet each other in the semifinals.  In my opinion, the winner of this game will win the East.  I like St. Francis in that game against Navy and then against Princeton in the Championship.  The Terriers have too much talent this season plus they are getting great leadership out of Nemanja Pucarevic.