Dec. 5, 2009

 

By JON MARKS
Special to NCAA.com


PRINCETON, NJ—During a period when cost-cutting and economic cutbacks have become a way of life throughout the country, the NCAA 2009 Men’s Water Polo Championships are an aberration.   Three of the four schools who’ll assemble here beginning Saturday at DeNunzio Pool are located within a 15-mile radius of each other.

Yet defending champion USC, archrival UCLA, the only team to beat them this season and neighborhood power Loyola Marymount (LMU) are all  traveling some 3,000 miles into the den of the host school Princeton Tigers--and don’t seem to mind one bit.

That’s part of the magic of being in an NCAA Final Four, no matter what the sport.

The action will get underway at 3 p.m.  (ET) with the 15-11 host school, Princeton, taking on the 24-2 Trojans, No. 1 seed in the field, followed by a 5 p.m. neighborhood showdown between second-seeded, UCLA (22-6), champions of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, and 19-7 LMU, who won the Western Water Polo Association title.

Winners advance to Sunday’s final, following a noontime consolation game between the losers.

``We’re really excited about coming to Princeton,’’ said UCLA’s Ben Hohl, who scored nine of his 37 goals last weekend when the Bruins punched their ticket.  ``A lot of my teammates and friends have told us to make all we can of the experience and make sure we realize how special it is.  

``It’s a really small percentage who get to compete in the Final Four of an NCAA event.’’

And an even smaller percentage get the chance to win back-to-back crowns, like USC, appearing in its 24th Final Four, is attempting to do.

“There’s a lot of underlying pressure, but we have a chance to be the first team at USC to win back-to-back titles,” said Shea Buckner, whose 41 goals tied Justin Rappel for the team lead. “Two wins would give us 100 as a senior class.”

And should Jovan Vavic’s four-time champion Trojans wind up knocking off the Bruins to get there, so much the better. “It would be retribution to beat UCLA, because they’re the only team that’s beaten us the last two years,” said Buckner, whose team has split with its four meetings with the Bruins.  “They’re a fast team and they move the ball well.

“They don’t have any super stars, but they’re patient and work for their opportunities.  It’s hard to beat a team like that.”

That’s getting ahead of things, of course, which is probably just the way Loyola Marymount wants them to think.  Back in the Final Four for the third straight year and seventh overall, the Lions were on the verge of advancing to their first title game last year, when Stanford staged a last-ditch rally to beat them.

The pain of that near miss has stuck with Loyola all season. “I think the guys felt they let an opportunity get away,” said LMU’s 13-year veteran coach, John Loughran. “We’ve had a great season this year, but getting close is never good enough.

“UCLA has an excellent goalie and is strong in all positions.  But our guys are hungry, too.  For us the key is playing great defense.  That’s been our strongpoint the last three years.”

That would leave the outsider, which just happens to be the home team.  While the three Southern California schools are the glamour teams, the host Tigers are the unknown.  Princeton coach Luis Nicalao likes it that way.
“It’s very exciting,” said Nicalao, whose team got off to a slow start, due to a slew of injuries coupled with a string of close losses. “We’ll have a tremendous crowd and playing USC, the defending champions, any advantage we’ll take.

“We’ve had to really grind it out this year and didn’t really jell until late.  But this is great for East Coast water polo.  I just hope we can give USC a run for its money.”

There’s one other factor to consider here: the home pool advantage in terms of the fact that the three California schools play all their games outdoors.  Trying to offset that UCLA coach Adam Wright had his team open the season with a five-game tournament here.

The rest will be dealing with something new.  “The pool absolutely is a big thing,” said USC’s Buckner. `”They’re used to the sound. They’re used to the pool.

``They know how close the fans are. It’s definitely an advantage.

“Communication is vital. It’s our lifeline. We have to be able to talk to each other or we’re going to be lost.”

Said LMU’S Loughran: “It’s going to be difficult. When you’re trying to coach all your yelling turns to mush. You just have to hope they’re prepared.”