LA JOLLA, Calif. -- When a water polo team has two potent goal scorers like Stanford’s Brett Bonanni and Alex Bowen, popular thinking would be that offense would be the main emphasis of the team.
Not for coach John Vargas. His coaching philosophy stresses the other side of the pool with defense first, offense a definite second.
Friction between such prolific goal scorers would be understandable, but Bonanni and Bowen have embraced their coach’s mindset.“It’s great to have firepower there’s no question, but they’ll tell you as much as I will it’s more important to play great defense,” Vargas said. “It’s amazing what they can do offensively, that’s for sure, but their focus is playing great defense.”
Both Bonanni and Bowen were recruited for their scoring. Bowen was a standout at Santana High School in Santee, California, near the site of this weekend’s NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship at UC San Diego. Bowen led his high school team to a league title all four years he was there and ended his career as the all-time California Interscholastic Federation’s San Diego Section career goals leader with 547.
Bonanni was up the Interstate 5 Freeway 90 miles at Orange County’s Mater Dei High and had an equally impressive high school career. He led the Monarchs to four CIF Section Titles and was twice named CIF Player of the Year, finishing his career with 435 goals.
Bowen, a senior, arrived at Stanford a year before Bonanni and fulfilled the promise he had shown in high school. He was the Cardinal’s leading scoring that season and was named newcomer of the year in the conference as well as being placed on the first team.
Then Bonanni arrived a year later and almost doubled the goals that Bowen had scored his freshman year, compiling 97 goals and breaking the university’s record, held by Tony Azevado.
But Bowen’s goal production didn’t diminish in Bonanni’s first season, it actually increased and it confirmed what Bowen thought when he first heard Bonanni had committed to Stanford.
“I was pumped,” Bowen said. “I was so excited to have him as a teammate. Seeing him come in was great.”
It’s not like the two were strangers. They had played on teams together when they were younger and were familiar with each other. That made playing together at Stanford that much easier.
“You play with each other all the time and on the national team and you are traveling together, it’s like a brotherly thing,” Bonanni said. “You are constantly seeing each other all the time and it’s like a family.”
“It was pretty easy,” Bowen said. “When Brett came he was an addition to the firepower. He wasn’t the guy. And we play opposite sides so that made it easier as well. It made me more open, it made him more open, it worked really well.”
Vargas knew of the potential pitfalls and made sure it didn’t happen at Stanford.
“It always takes time to get them where they can mesh,” Vargas said. “They both came from programs where they are the guy and now we’re going to share that role. Not only are they sharing that amongst themselves, but with the rest of the great players we have on this team.”
Bowen admitted there was a bit of a learning curve in the beginning.
“The first year we were trying to get to a point where we were sharing the ball more,” Bowen said. “His motor is incredible. He’s always moving. Now we’ve played three years together, we are as close as we can ever get.”
Besides, Vargas wanted to help them become complete players and that meant subscribing to his defensive philosophy.
And while the two were learning defensive techniques, it actually helped their offense. Bowen is Stanford’s third leading all-time goal scorer and Bonanni is second with a chance to become the all-time scorer next year.
“Our main goal is to win,” Bonanni said. “It’s not about scoring goals. We don’t get wrapped up in that. We just want to win. That’s where our focus is. We aren’t thinking like individuals.
We are never going to win as one person and that’s what we have realized since day one. Coach Vargas has done a great job ingraining that in us.”
Bowen is confident he has become a better player because of being Bonanni’s teammate.
“No, I wouldn’t be as good a player as I am if he wasn’t on this team,” Bowen said. “We’ve both stepped each other’s games up since we got here. The last three years of our lives have been accelerated because of playing together.”