Nov. 22, 2010

By Trevor Freeman

Special to NCAA.com


It is finally that time. From Lewisburg, PA to Santa Clara, CA, teams lined up to bid for a ticket to the grandest ball in American water polo. There are many tournaments but none in this country mean more than the NCAA Final Four. Dreams were fulfilled for two small schools in Brooklyn, NY and Los Angeles, CA while the flame was extinguished for many more. We will get into this weeks incredible action and more in our first postseason report.

On Wednesday, the polls were released and one program found itself with its highest national ranking since 1995. Sitting at fourth in the country were the Tigers of Pacific. In three short years, Head Coach James Graham has transformed Pacific into a program that not only has a chance to be playing at NCAAs this season, but will likely enter next season with a top-three preseason ranking. I caught up with Coach Graham prior to his teams 15-10 win over ninth-ranked Long Beach State and below is our interview.

Pacific scored its first win over Stanford since 2006 and is surging into MPSFs. What do your Tigers need to do to win the tournament?

We need to do a better job of taking care of details. Little things can add up to big wins. Each team is so strong that little mistakes can make the difference between a one-goal loss or a one-goal win.”

Joey Gullikson had a huge game in your win against Stanford and has quietly been a great contributor for your team. What makes him so effective?

Joey is a tenacious kid. He goes out there and he makes his presence felt. I have coached him for five years and know he is capable of doing great things. He has the complete set of skills.”

Your program has grown in your three years from not making MPSFs to now being a threat to win it. To top it off, you will return a team that will most likely be preseason top three next year. Can you tell us about that?

I learned a lot in those three years. I learned to not deal with expectations and just worry about where we need to be. It's been a tough road as those first two years were difficult. It is a testament to the team's discipline that they kept believing that we could be successful and kept working hard. It is pretty exciting now. We are looking forward to MPSFs and the future.”
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The first NCAA Final Four bid of the mens water polo campaign was awarded at Bucknell as thirteenth-ranked St. Francis met eighteenth-ranked Navy in the tournaments championship game. All season long, St. Francis has been the cream of the Eastern crop and on Sunday they cemented their placing as the Easts best with an 8-4 win. The Terriers got off to an inauspicious beginning as they trailed the Midshipmen 3-1 before scoring six straight goals over the second, third and fourth quarters to put the game away. Nikola Djuric was simply fantastic in the cage as he did an outstanding job of spearheading the Terrier defense and had an outstanding five-meter stop on Navys Kyle Wertz in the fourth quarter. Marko Gencic scored three goals and just played a terrific all-around game. The Terriers are going to be an intriguing matchup for whomever they play in the Final Four as Djuric gives them an outstanding presence in the cage. An argument can be made that if Joel Dennerley and USC dont get to the Final Four, that Djuric will be the second best goalie in the tournament behind LMUs Andy Stevens.

The second ticket to the NCAA Final Four was punched by eighth-ranked Loyola Marymount as the Lions defeated UC-Davis 9-6. WWPA Tournament MVP Andy Stevens had twelve saves to spearhead the defense while Tibor Forais hat trick led the offense. This victory makes it four straight NCAA Final Fours for LMU. Heading into the season, Loyola Marymount was thought to be an NCAA Championship contender. While the Lions struggled more than most thought they would early in the season, they seem to be hitting their stride. Loyola Marymount has won eleven out of their last twelve games and will arrive at this years event with wind at their sails. This is a veteran-laden squad that will not be fazed by the magnitude of the event. In Stevens, they boast the most decorated player in the event as the LMU goalie has been a member of the United States National team for the past two years. The two-time First-Team NCAA All-Tournament performer will cause sleepless nights for the coaching staff of whoever the Lions Final Four opponent is.

The Big Splash” is arguably the nations most storied water polo rivalry and this years edition was played in front of a packed house at Berkeley. Top-ranked California survived a determined Stanford squad to pull out a 9-6 win and took home the Steve Heaston Trophy for the first time since 2004. Up 7-6, the Golden Bears were able to distance themselves from the fifth-ranked Cardinal on fourth-quarter scores from Luka Saponjic and Brian Dudley. With the win, California completed their first undefeated MPSF campaign in Kirk Everists tenure. As the top-seed in next weekends MPSF Tournament, California will play eighth-seeded Pepperdine in the first round and then could be matched up with Stanford again in the tournament semifinals. Stanford earned the fourth-seed in the MPSF Tournament and faces a grueling first-round game with fifth-seeded UC-Irvine in the tournaments opening round.
Second-ranked USC won a crucial game over sixth-ranked UC-Irvine over the weekend by an 11-5 count. With the win, USC sewed up the second seed in the tournament and will play seventh-seeded UCSB in the first round of next weekends MPSF Tournament. This is important as Pacific was lurking as the sixth-seed and is not a squad anybody wanted to face in the tournaments opening round. USCs win over the Anteaters was led by twelve saves from Joel Dennerley and two goals each from Nikola Vavic, Peter Kurzeka, Michael Rosenthal and Mace Rapsey.

Seventh-ranked UC-Santa Barbara clinched the seventh seed in the MPSF Tournament as the y held off tenth-ranked Pepperdine 11-10. Tied 9-9 heading into the fourth quarter, UCSB received consecutive goals from Mat t Gronow and Brian Shoemaker to grab a two-goal lead and was able to hold on for the victory.

Player of the Week
Nikola Djuric, St. Francis, Sr. and Andy Stevens, LMU, Sr.: Goalie is the most important position in water polo and St. Francis and Loyola Marymount both punched their Final Four tickets behind outstanding performances from their netminders.

Contest to Watch
The MPSF Tournament is what the water polo world will be focusing on this week. The most appetizing matchup is a first-round tilt between third-ranked UCLA and fourth-ranked Pacific. The Bruins last played the Tigers on October 10th and won 10-9. Do not be surprised if these two teams play a couple overtime periods as the Tigers and Bruins are very evenly matched.