Sept. 5, 2008
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - In the last decade, the NCAA Championship and the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation men's water polo crowns have only been won by four different teams. In fact, in the NCAA men's water polo tournament's 38-year history, those same four teams have captured a combined 34 national titles. In 2008, the UC Santa Barbara men's water polo team will look to continue its attempt to break-up this elite party and become a national contender.
Head coach Wolf Wigo enters his fourth season at the helm of the UCSB program. In his previous three seasons, he has accumulated a 53-45 record and in 2006 he led the team to its first 20-win season (21-14) since 1990 and a sixth-place national finish, the best season-ending ranking since 1994.
The milestones continued last season as the Gauchos finished the year with a 19-14 overall record and once again were ranked sixth in the Collegiate Water Polo Association Coaches Poll at the end of the year. The biggest highlight, however, was the Oct. 27 victory over Wigo's alma mater and a team that has the second most NCAA men's water polo titles (10), Stanford. It marked the first Gaucho win over the Cardinal since 1985.
Though the Gauchos are making great strides towards becoming one of the nation's top programs, breaking into the top-four - a terrain historically occupied by Cal, UCLA, Stanford, and USC - is an enormous task.
Wigo, and new assistant Tim Settem, who comes to UCSB after six years as the head men's and women's coach at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, are both optimistic about what 2008 holds for the Gauchos.
"I want to keep building upon the success we have had the past two years," Wigo began. "We have been sixth in the country and our goal is to maintain that ranking or be higher. So anything is possible. Now our team is at a level where no one is going to say we are a favorite, I mean we were ranked sixth in the preseason and in the conference polls, so no one is expecting us to be that great. But now we have experience, and if things go well we could beat anyone this year."
The 2008 Gauchos return 15 letterwinners from the 2007 campaign, including six seniors, and they also welcome six of last season's freshman redshirts to the active roster.
"We have three really strong centers: Ratko Paunovic, Jesse Tootell, and Noah Smith," Wigo said. "They have all been playing well in the off-season, so we will be the strongest we have ever been in the center position."
The most experienced of the three, Paunovic, returns for his senior season. As a junior, Paunovic played in all 33 of the Gauchos' games and scored nine goals and handed out six assists. He ranked fourth on the team with 28 earned penalties or ejections.
"Ratko has a lot of experience and he is a good all-around player," Wigo said. "Jesse and Noah are both more straight centers - really big guys - but he (Paunovic) has very good legs and he is also real versatile, he can defend and play up top on the attack."
Tootell, a junior, has played in all 68 of UCSB's games since joining the active roster in 2006. Last year he collected nine goals and also earned 31 earned penalties or ejections, good for second on the team, and tops amongst the Gaucho centers.
Rounding out the group of talented hole men is Smith, a freshman who redshirted the 2007 season. Smith came to UCSB out of Santa Maria's Righetti High School where he was the 2006 CIF Division IV Player of the Year and a Third Team All-American in the fall of 2006.
"Jesse is doing a great job. He is very strong and teams are going to have a lot of trouble guarding him and the same is true with Noah. It is going to be a real dangerous attack and people are going to have to choose whether to honor the shooters up top or drop-off onto the centers," Wigo said.
"It is going to be hard for teams to drop off of them and then we also have strong setters. So it is a great combination," Wigo said.
Vincze, who enters his third year with the Gauchos, was third on the squad last year with 46 goals and 26 assists. He also led UCSB earning 46 penalties or ejections and was excellent against the nations' top teams, scoring hat tricks in contests against Stanford, Cal, and UCLA.
Golic led UCSB and was fifth in the MPSF with an average of 2.30 goals per game. He tallied a total of 53, which was second on the team and first amongst returning players, in addition to being tied first on the team with 36 assists.
"Milos and Zsombor are two of the best players in the country this year," Wigo said. "They are both excellent shooters, they are excellent defenders, and excellent all-around attackers. Teams are probably going to be pressing them out a lot and opening up opportunities for other players."
Price, a three-year letterwinner for the Gauchos, was fourth on the team in 2007 with 35 goals scored and also handed out 22 assists. He was especially impressive in the season-opening UC San Diego Triton Invitational, where he led UCSB to the tourney crown after tallying eight goals. He was subsequently named MPSF Player of the Week.
"Miles is an extremely talented player and we really hope he can have a breakthrough year his senior year; come out and be a star player," Wigo said.
Watts, another three-year letterwinner, was third on the team two seasons ago by scoring 39 goals in 2006. This past year he notched 12 goals and handed out 23 assists.
"Travis, along with Miles, is a very deadly shooter," Wigo said. "We are looking for him to step-up and have a great year. If a few guys can do that, we will have a great team."
Additionally, junior Stefan Partelow returns for his third season in the blue and gold. Partelow tallied 29 goals and 23 assists in 2007.
"Stefan is one of the hardest working players on the team," Wigo said. "He is continually improving. He is a very physical player and he is great on the counter attack for us. Hopefully he continues on his path of improvement as he has done in each of the past two years."
Playing on the right side of the pool will be two lefthanders with plenty of playing experience: seniors Dane Lindstrom and Daniel Natalizio. Lindstrom chipped in 12 goals and 17 assists in 2007, while Natalizio notched four goals and seven assists.
"We hope they make smart decisions and have a great season. If they can be good and the goalies can be good, then we have a high potential."
"They all are very smart players. They are going to be fighting for playing time with these older guys and there is a chance that they could become key members of the team depending on how they progress and how they play in games," Wigo said. "In practice they have been great, so I am looking forward to seeing how they perform."
"Our defenders all have a lot of experience, so I think it is a really a balanced team," Wigo remarked. "I don't think there is really one area that stands out, but now we really are not weak in any position."
The Gauchos return several experienced two-meter defenders for the 2008 season. The trio of Kendell Olds, Michael Machado, and Brian Bishop will share the duties of containing the opposition's centers.
Machado, a senior, tallied five assists and four steals while posting seven field blocks during the 2007 season. Olds, who played in 29 contests as a sophomore, handed out 15 assists and tallied 11 steals and eight field blocks. Finally, Bishop played in all 33 contests as a redshirt freshman and scored 12 goals while collecting 13 steals and 12 assists.
"We have the same group as last year, we don't lose anyone in that position, so it is going to be one of the strong points of our team," Wigo said. "They are continuing to get better on offense, they are getting stronger and more experienced, and they can handle any center in the country right now. They are a great threesome, and along with the three hole men, we are really deep in those positions. We also have Sam Evans (a redshirt freshman out of Righetti HS) who isn't at their level yet but he has a lot of potential, so we are going to get him as many minutes as we can."
"The goalkeeping will be pretty big for us this year; that is the only real question mark," Wigo remarked.
With the departure of starting goalie Rick Wright due to graduation, the role is now up for grabs between his two reserves last season: junior Michael Robinson and sophomore Fraser Bunn. Robinson played 25 quarters for the Gauchos last season and averaged 6.6 saves per game, while Bunn played 15 quarters and had an average of 8.8 saves per game.
"Michael and Fraser are really battling for the starting position and as of right now we don't know who it is going to be, so we will probably start off giving both of them a chance," Wigo said.
Rounding out the red-capped crew is Russell Russo LeVasseur (Dos Pueblos HS), who redshirted the 2007 season and may see some time in a reserve role.
The Gauchos will open their 2008 campaign this weekend at the UC San Diego Triton Invitational where they will take on Cal Lutheran in the opening round at 11:20 a.m. on Saturday. The following Friday, Sept. 12, UCSB will open at home with a match against non-conference foe UC Davis at Campus Pool at 3 p.m.
UCSB will participate in both the Northern (Stockton, Calif.) and Southern (Los Angeles, Calif.) California Tournaments this season and will host a total of eight home contests.
The 2008 MPSF Tournament will be hosted by Pepperdine on the weekend of Nov. 28-30 and the NCAA Championships will be held at Stanford, Dec. 6-7.
"There is no game we are going into that we feel like we can't win," Wigo said. "Our goals are for the highest level - to make the NCAA Championships. We have a lot of seniors, so if the senior group can come together and make a really strong team and bond, and be motivated, we can have a lot of success."