By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com
Somebody needs to alert the captain to turn the fasten seat belt” sign on as the action in the pool was wild over the weekend and should only get crazier with the first two Final Four bids being awarded in seven days. The top four teams in the country all received a battle this weekend and not all of them survived unscathed. In this weeks column, we will review this weekends action and look ahead to next weeks postseason battles.
The CWPA will award their Final Four bid this Sunday and the most appetizing matchup on the first day of their Championships is a clash between eighteenth-ranked Navy and nineteenth-ranked Brown. These two squads are among the Easts elite and I expect their Friday afternoon game to be riveting. With that as a backdrop, I caught up with Browns Head Coach Felix Mercado to discuss his team and the upcoming Eastern Championships. Below is our interview.
Brown is matched up with Navy in what promises to be an exceptional first round contest at Easterns. What is your team’s mindset going into that game and Easterns in general?
All four teams in the South are very good and Navy is one of the better teams. Easterns is going to be a gauntlet and we knew that we were going to have to go through at least two tough Southern teams. We will be ready for the game with Navy and we are sure that they will be ready for us.”
Svetozar Stefanovic has been outstanding for Brown all season long. What makes him the great player that he is?
Svetozar is a very talented and coachable water polo player. He has some great contributors around him. This has made it so he is not relied on to do everything for us. When the team is playing well, he is playing well. He is the anchor of our offense and everyone around him is benefiting from his strong play.”
James MacNamara was a big-time recruit for your squad as he is a member of the United States Junior National team. He has lived up to his star billing and has been very effective for Brown. What makes him the player that he is?
James is a winner. He has a crazy work ethic and does not take any days off. People might have assumed that he came out East to take it easy because he didn’t sign with one of the “big four” squads, and nothing can be further from that. James wants to compete and he wants to work hard. He is enjoying every minute of his experience as he has the opportunity to combine playing great water polo with a Brown education.”
Down 8-7 entering the fourth quarter, top-ranked California needed a rally to escape Stockton with a win over sixth-ranked Pacific. They got it. Cals defense tightened up and Zach Greenwood scored two key fourth-quarter goals to help California avoid Pacifics upset bid. With the 10-8 victory, California moved to 20-2 on the season and 7-0 in MPSF play with only one regular season match left against third-ranked Stanford.
After losing a Saturday heartbreaker, sixth-ranked Pacific finally did what many felt was inevitable. They stunned a top three team. Pacific travelled to Stanford on Sunday and took down the third-ranked Cardinal behind five goals from senior Joey Gullikson. This victory moved Pacific to 15-9 overall and 3-4 in MPSF play. It also cements Pacifics status as the team most likely to ruin somebodys NCAA hopes in the first round of the MPSF Tournament. Stanfords loss drops them to 13-6 overall and 5-2 in MPSF play. The Cardinal are tied with USC for third place in the MPSF race with both teams being a half game behind fourth-ranked UCLA as the Bruins concluded their regular season with a 6-2 conference record.
Getting locked in a nailbiter was the common theme this week for the top four teams in the country and second-ranked USC was no exception as they received a scare from tenth-ranked Pepperdine. USC held off the Waves 7-6 on Friday night. Down 7-3, Pepperdine scored three straight second-half goals to trim the gap to one with 3:22 left in the fourth quarter. However, USC was able to keep Pepperdine off the board for those last three minutes to score the win. Peter Kurzekas two goals led the way for the Trojans. USC had an easier time on Saturday as they cruised past ninth-ranked Long Beach State 10-4. With these wins, USC moved to 22-2 overall. The Trojans have a dangerous game coming up on Saturday as they travel to Anteater Pool to face fifth-ranked UC-Irvine. The Anteaters defeated seventh-ranked UC-Santa Barbara 7-6 over the weekend and will enter that clash at 16-6 overall and only one game behind in MPSF play at 4-3.
UCLA finished their regular season on a winning note; however they also had to sweat out a close contest with a conference rival. UCSB held an 8-7 fourth quarter lead before Josh Samuels and Jacob Murphy scored back to back goals to lead UCLA to a thrilling 9-8 Sunday afternoon victory. Prior to that game, UCLA defeated Pepperdine on Saturday and nineteenth-ranked Air Force on Monday.
Eighth-ranked Loyola Marymount needed to work overtime but they were able to knock off Long Beach State 11-9. Ikaika Akis two overtime goals was the difference for a Lions team that has quietly won eight out of their last nine games. Andy Stevens led the Lions with thirteen saves while Tibor Forai chipped in four goals. One of the biggest roadblocks in Loyola Marymounts quest for another Final Four is fourteenth-ranked UC-Davis and they scored a 6-4 win over twelfth-ranked Santa Clara over the weekend. Matt Richardson scored twice and Kevin Peat had ten saves to lead the Aggies.
The SCIAC always has an interesting championship tournament and this weekend was no exception. Fourth-seeded Claremont-Mudd-Scripps defeated seventh-seeded Whittier 6-4 to claim the SCIAC Championship. Pomona-Pitzer and Redlands were considered by many to be the favorites entering this tournament and they battled in the third-place game with Redlands winning 10-9.
Player of the Week
Joey Gullikson, Pacific, Sr.: Pacifics win over Stanford was their first since 2006 and is the biggest in James Grahams tenure as Head Coach of the Tigers. It is fitting that this victory was led by five goals from Joey Gullikson who was one of James Grahams first recruits. The Sonoma, CA native played for Graham at Santa Rosa Junior College and graduated with his coach to the NCAA level. James Grahams teams will emerge victorious in many more big games, however I think he would even admit that Gullikson leading his first added icing to the cake.
Contest to Watch
The first two NCAA Final Four bids will be awarded next week as the CWPA and WWPA Championships are both taking place. In the WWPA, Loyola Marymount, eleventh-ranked UC-San Diego, Santa Clara and UC-Davis are all strong squads that could emerge victorious. Out East, thirteenth-ranked St. Francis has not lost to an Eastern team all season long and is a slight favorite over sixteenth-ranked Princeton, seventeenth-ranked Bucknell, Navy and Brown.