No. 9 Aggies begin repeat title quest

Aug. 30, 2017

DAVIS, Calif. - Some nine months removed from capturing the team title at the Western Water Polo Association championship tournament, UC Davis men’s water polo opens its 2017 season – and the quest to return to that winning podium. The Aggies will face No. 8 Long Beach State and Air Force in Saturday’s portion of the Triton Invitational, hosted by UC San Diego.

For Daniel Leyson, now in his fifth year at the helm, the larger goals for his team remain the same: win that WWPA crown and the NCAA tourney berth, plus maintain a team grade-point average of at least 3.0. Now known as the Child And Meisel Families Director of Men’s Water Polo, Leyson knows UC Davis will have a target on its back after last season’s achievement, and this year’s conference tournament will take place at the tough venue that is UC San Diego’s Canyonview Aquatic Center. Certainly, the Aggies’ No. 9 spot in the national preseason coaches’ poll enlarges their appearance in the other teams’ crosshairs.

Triton Invitational Tourney Central

“Last year, we finally put it together and get it done,” said Leyson. “There’s a feeling of relief that we got it done. But that’s also super-dangerous. There is no relief, and it doesn’t stop. It was a big step for us but we’ve got to keep going. So now the anxiety is off, and that anxiety and stress can help prepare you.”

The veteran coach’s concerns over complacency is quelled by his team’s enthusiasm to begin the year. Three weeks of preseason workouts, with the Aggies sole facing themselves, will inevitably create a certain type of cabin fever. Leyson’s anticipation to start the season is perhaps rivaled only by his players. “We couldn’t be more excited,” he said. “We just want to get through these last practices, get on the plane, and go play some games.”

Overall, the team’s greatest strength is its depth, particularly in the attacker and utility positions. UC Davis returns five of its six leading scorers from 2016, including All-American and reigning WWPA Player of the Year Ido Goldschmidt, who paced the team with 48 goals and 42 assists. All-WWPA second-teamer Marcus Anderson (43 goals, 24 assists) and All-WWPA honorable mention Cory Laidig (35 goals, 28 assists, 44 steals) are back, with the likes of Riley Venne (34 goals, 20 steals) and Eric Martel (32 goals, 27 drawn exclusions) each looking to contribute scoring punch. 

Yurii Hanley comes off a rookie season that brought him WWPA All-Freshman honors. He scored 19 goals with 23 assists, 20 steals and 14 field blocks, revealing his jack-of-all-trades ability on the stat sheet. Players like Brock Gordon (17 goals, 13 assists), Nick Coufal (13 goals, 7 assists) and Spencer Galli (15 assists, 24 steals) also enter their redshirt junior years, providing even more experience to the picture. Meanwhile, look for Holden Tamblyn and Colter Knight to enjoy breakthrough years in 2017.

Senior center Morgan Olson-Fabbro takes on a pivotal role in his final year. He largely served as the No. 2 hole setter behind graduated senior Tennyson May, contributing another 29 goals with 22 drawn kickouts in 2016. With Martel still getting back to full strength after his offseason injury, and redshirt freshman Joseph Gomez growing into the two-meter position, Olson-Fabbro will shoulder a critical load to start the new year.

“The center position isn’t a question mark so much as that we don’t have a lot of depth,” said Leyson. “Morgan Olson-Fabbro has done really well. He has become a more mature and more reliable player. I think he’s going to do well.”

If there is one question mark, it’s the cage. All-WWPA performer Spencer Creed opted not to return for his senior year, leaving a vacancy at goalkeeper. Battling for the position is junior R.J. Quigley, who posted 43 saves against 24 goals allowed as a reserve last year; and Jonah Addington, a 6-foot-6 true freshman from Hanford, California. 

“We have competition at that position,” Leyson said. “R.J. is a smaller goalie, but he’s a fiery guy and a competitor. He’s a gamer. Jonah is a completely different type. He’s 6-foot-6, he’s a huge presence and he has really long arms. He’s more of a calm, consistent performer. Those guys are competing for playing time, so we’ll have to see how it plays out.”

As a result of his team’s depth, Leyson has high levels of competition at every position on his roster. Although it will make for some tough decisions throughout the year, he sees it as a net positive for the program. “We have some guys who won’t make the travel roster who we’re very pleased with how they’re coming on. That will be a difficult conversation for me to have. They won’t travel this weekend but they’re really good players. There’s just not enough room on the roster. That’s a sign of a program that is attracting more and more good players.

“We want competition at all positions. As hard as it is to tell a guy that he won’t play, that’s how it is at Division I. The overall competition between players makes the level of the team rise. That’s how we want it. It’s the hardest part of the job, having to tell someone he didn’t make the travel roster. But that’s how it has to be.”

Among the young up-and-comers, Gomez will use his 6-foot-5 frame to good use at center, and should see playing time as his knowledge base grows. Kyle Reilly also redshirted last year, but has emerged as a solid center-defender. Leyson and the coaching staff also has been pleased with another redshirt freshman, Jack Stafford, a Cardinal Newman High alumnus who offers a diverse set of skills – not unlike Laidig and Hanley.

Ultimately, the true test begins this weekend. The Aggies do not exactly ease into their season, what with Long Beach State and conference foe Air Force on top for the first day. If UC Davis wins both games, then its likely Sunday opponent is defending national champs Cal. If the Aggies split, their most likely competition would be No. 13 UC Irvine or No. 6 UC Santa Barbara.  

For a coach who aspires to see his program ascend the overall ladder of collegiate water polo, the Triton Invite brings an invaluable opportunity. 

“These are super-competitive games,” Leyson said. “We want to play these teams really tough. We want to see the execution of our game plan and so the things we’re supposed to do. We want to see who will perform under pressure. The execution of the things we want to do against tough opponents will be a mark for us.”

Saturday’s opener with Long Beach State takes place at 1:20 p.m.

SKIP SHOTS: Head coach Daniel Leyson’s official title became the Child And Meisel Families Director of Men’s Water Polo, thanks to a generous gift from alumni Mike and Renee Child, and former Aggie parents Steve and Janice Meisel... This is the first endowed coaching position at UC Davis... The 2016 WWPA championship marked the first conference title (and subsequent NCAA tournament appearance) for the Aggies since the 1996 and 1997 squads won back-to-back crowns... Plans are underway to reunite those two championship teams for the October 7 alumni game... If the Aggies do not end up drawing Cal down in La Jolla, they’ll meet up with the 2016 national champions three days later (Sept. 6).

Located in a vibrant college town ideally positioned between San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and the Napa Valley, UC Davis was rated as the nation’s No. 6 public university by the Wall Street Journal. Most recently, Washington Monthly listed the university as its No. 9 overall school, mostly on its strengths in social mobility and research.