Dec. 1, 2008

 

By Trevor Freeman

Special to NCAA.com

 

It was the 2002 World Cup and it was a thriller. Ireland and Spain battled in a game for the ages. The contest came down to penalty kicks and the Spaniards ended up with the victory. As a crushed Irish squad walked off the field, the camera panned to Robbie Keane and the announcer said, “Son, if that’s what it takes to beat you then you can leave with your head held high.” I feel the same way about how John Hahn and the Pepperdine Waves played this weekend and especially in the MPSF Finals against USC. The Trojans may have won that game 3-2, but Hahn and his team turned in one of the most valiant efforts I have seen all season.

 

The USC-Pepperdine MPSF Championship game possessed everything one would want out of a championship encounter.  It had incredible individual efforts out of the two goalies as USC’s Joel Dennerley and Pepperdine’s John Hahn were unreal.  The two Australians combined for twenty-seven saves in the game.  Hahn in particular was extraordinary as he had a second quarter save on Kyle Sterling and fourth quarter save on J.W. Krumpholz that were borderline miraculous.  In the end, this game came down to a great player making a tremendous play.  Often times, Shea Buckner gets lost in the hype that surrounds Matt Sagehorn and J.W. Krumpholz.  Sunday night, Buckner had a moment that may well have saved USC’s undefeated season.  With less than ten seconds left in the game, Shea Buckner drew an exclusion.  Buckner then had the presence of mind to realize there was next to no time left on the clock and fired a shot that went past Hahn just as the horn sounded.  It was an incredible end to an unbelievable game.

 

The two sides made it to this moment in different fashions.  USC went up big and then cruised in their first two games against UC-Irvine and UCLA.  Meanwhile Pepperdine held off UCSB and then needed double-overtime to knock off Stanford.  Brett Auer scored twice in the last 1:24 of that contest to send the game into overtime and then struck for the game-winner in the second overtime period. 

 

Stanford (which edged out Pepperdine for the lone NCAA at-large bid) won third place at MPSFs as they were able to hold off UCLA for a 10-7 victory.  The Wigo Brothers (Janson and Drac) combined for six goals in the win.  UCSB took fifth place with a 9-7 overtime victory over UC-Irvine.  Fraser Bunn led the way with eleven saves.  UC-Irvine got into that game by pulling off the upset of the tournament in beating California 13-12 in triple overtime.  This led to the defending NCAA Champion Golden Bears having to settle for seventh place at MPSFs.  California beat Long Beach State in that seventh place game by a 13-9 count.  Eight Golden Bears scored in the victory.

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2008 NCAA Final Four Preview

 

USC versus Navy

 

Field Players

On the positive side when comparing the field players these two teams trot out, I am absolutely confident that Navy's Mike Mulvey can play Matt Sagehorn to a draw.  Mulvey is an elite level defender who has the ability to shut down any single player he comes across.  The problem for Navy is that USC also has 2008 United States Olympian J.W. Krumpholz, Shea Buckner (who trained with the U.S. National Team over the summer), Freshman of the Year candidate Peter Kurzeka and an elite lefty in Justin Rappel to deal with offensively.  All of those guys have the ability to put multi-goal games on the board and that is one of many reasons why USC is dangerous.  Sagehorn, Krumpholz and Buckner in particular will all be on the first two strings of this year’s All-American team.  When I asked Coach Jovan Vavic in our November 24th interview about Matt Sagehorn he said, “Some players can do some things well and other things not so well.  Matt does everything well.”  Sagehorn is somebody whose game also seems to rise when the lights shine brightest.  In the trenches, USC has an advantage on everybody in this field as J.W. Krumpholz and Shea Buckner are elite at their two-meter offense and defense positions. 

 

Two major contributors who serve as the backbone of the USC defense are seniors Jovan Vranes and Arjan Ligtenberg.  The Trojans have a staggering amount of depth as they can easily rotate two lines and not have much drop-off.  USC boasts players like Anthony Artukovich, Kyle Sterling, Jordan Thompson, Nico Sardo and Devon Borisoff that we have not even mentioned yet who are more than capable of having a multi-goal game in this tournament.

The one thing Navy has going for it in this contest is that they can swim.  Navy always boasts a team that is as fit and conditioned as any team in the country.  2007 NCAA All-Tournament team member Mike Mulvey is Navy's finest player and will be the key guy that USC will have to keep an eye on.  After Mulvey, Navy has some good under the radar players who can put goals on the board in senior Chuck Baker, junior Johnny Meiners and freshman Kyle Wertz.

Goalie

Joel Dennerley is in the discussion when it comes to best goalie in the country as he posted a very impressive 8.05 saves and 4.36 goals against average during the regular season.  The Australian Junior National team member is older than your typical freshman as he is twenty-one years of age.

 

On the Navy side, Mike Schofield called Brett Rajchel the team’s “most consistent player this season” in our November 10th interview.  The junior from Winter Park, FL had 234 saves this season which ranks him seventh on Navy’s single season saves list.  Navy will need Rajchel to turn in an incredible performance if they are to have any chance of staying in this game.

Coaches and Intangibles

 

USC and Navy have surprisingly not played each other at all over the past two seasons.  That being said, you have two coaching heavyweights sitting on each bench that will have their teams mentally prepared for this encounter.  On the Navy side, Coach Mike Schofield was inducted into the United States Water Polo Hall of Fame in 2004.  He has now led the Naval Academy to fourteen NCAA appearances and nine Eastern Championships.  Meanwhile, Jovan Vavic has been the head coach of the USC men for fourteen seasons and has led the Trojans to three NCAA Championships.

 

The biggest intangible in this game and Final Four is the mission USC is on.  This team wants to be considered one of the finest teams in the history of NCAA water polo.  The disappointment USC has suffered the past two seasons has fueled this squad.  The motivation to be perfect really shows on the defensive end.  I studied their defense during MPSFs and what I saw was near flawless execution.  No team causes more shot clock violations or does a better job of funneling shots than the Trojans do.  It is incredible to say this about a team with as much offensive firepower as USC has, but I think they might be as good or better on the defensive side of the pool.  If USC loses in this tournament it will be because some team put together the water polo equivalent of what Rollie Massimino’s Villanova Wildcats did in 1984 against Georgetown.
 

Stanford versus Loyola Marymount

 

Field Players

 

Stanford wants to play this game fast and they have the personnel to do that.  Sage Wright, Will Hindle-Katel, Janson Wigo and Drac Wigo are the players who draw the bulk of the attention on this squad.  Wright was a first-team All-American last season and is one of the most complete players in the country.  His speed makes him incredibly potent on the counterattack.  Wright is also a high-level defender who can mark the other team’s best offensive player and shut them down.  Janson Wigo is probably the best left-handed player in the country.  His shot from the perimeter is devastating.  Wigo can also go down to two-meters and set as I saw him do a lot of that this weekend in key matchups.  Will Hindle-Katel is another multidimensional player on a team full of them.  He will also play both inside and out.  Drac Wigo is an exceptional perimeter player with outstanding speed.  Stanford has great depth as Peter Sefton, Andrew Drake, Alex Pulido, Jeffrey Schwimer and Jacob Smith are all effective players who will see action at NCAAs.

 

The Lions boast two of the best international players in the NCAA game in 2007 All-American Tibor Forai and WWPA Rookie of the Year Edgaras Asajavicius.  Forai has always been known as a dynamic scorer; however he has really excelled this season at setting up his teammates.  Asajavicius is a lefty who has great size and speed.  He scored forty-five goals in his freshman campaign and should be able to create some matchup issues in this game.  Do not sleep on Tim Hummel, Julien Lormant and Mark Milovic.  All three of those guys are seniors who will be looking to make a big impact in their last two games.  Tim Hummel was a first-team All-WWPA selection and he has a knack for scoring key goals as he had a crucial game-winner over ninth-ranked UC San Diego with seven seconds left earlier in the season.  Julien Lormant has been doing an underrated job in two-meter as he has been drawing ejections with regularity.  Mark Milovic was an All-American in 2007 and is one of those players who can do a little bit of everything.


Goalie

"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."-Kyle Witt, Associate Head Coach, Loyola Marymount

I subscribe to the theory that if you think two teams are equal when analyzing a matchup, take one more look at the goalies before coming to your decision.  If you believe that as well then you might be inclined to pull the upset trigger.  Andy Stevens' reputation as a big-game goalie started with his performance in last season's NCAA Tournament.  I do not think anybody who witnessed his ten-save masterpiece (including one on a five-meter penalty) in the 2007 Final Four matchup with USC will forget the way the former United States Junior National team goalie lifted his game when the stakes were higher.  That reputation was only bolstered by a fifteen-save performance in the WWPA Championship game against UC San Diego.  The player who was both the WWPA Player of the Year and WWPA Tournament MVP is Loyola Marymount's biggest advantage heading into this contest.  Expect him to turn in a great performance in a game that his underdog Lions can steal.   

 

3-1 Pepperdine.  Game is at the Waves tempo.  Five meter drawn.  One of the last cuts off of the United States Olympic team in Adam Hewko is standing in to shoot it.  What do you do if you are Stanford’s Jimmie Sandman?  How about come up with the biggest save of your college career.  That save changed that entire MPSF semifinal clash with Pepperdine as a goal there might have led to Pepperdine running away with that game.  While the Waves still won, Sandman was terrific in that match.  He had eleven saves and showed that he is the kind of player who can elevate his game in a big situation.  Sandman has displayed the ability to step up his game when matched against a more hyped counterpart.  In Stanford’s 12-2 win over UCLA, Sandman had eleven saves to Chay Lapin’s two and in a 10-8 win over these same Loyola Marymount Lions he had seven saves to six for Andy Stevens.

Coaches and Intangibles

Loyola Marymount can go deep into their bench and still bring in quality players.  That makes them different from a lot of previous WWPA and CWPA entries into the Final Four.  Coach John Loughran is one of the best in the business as well.  In twelve seasons at Loyola Marymount, he has led the Lions to six NCAA appearances.  On the Stanford bench sits John Vargas.  This is his seventh year on the bench and he has now led the Cardinal to five NCAA appearances with one NCAA Championship won in 2002.  Prior to coaching Stanford, Vargas was the head coach of the 2000 United States Olympic team which finished sixth in Sydney.

These two teams played each other twice this season.  At the NorCal Invitational, Stanford won 10-5.  Three weeks later at the SoCal Invitational, Stanford won by a 10-8 count.  I would put no stock in that first win at the NorCal Invitational as Tibor Forai missed that game due to a broken nose suffered a week before against Pepperdine.  It was in fact only the second game Loyola Marymount had played without their offensive catalyst.  The second tilt is the tape that I am sure both coaches are breaking down right now.  In that game, Stanford jumped out to a 5-1 lead on Loyola Marymount and then never let the game get closer than two goals.    

 

One final intangible that will definitely be working in Stanford’s favor is that this game is being played at Avery Aquatics Center.  Loyola Marymount will have to be perfect to win this game in Stanford’s house.