Nov. 14, 2012
The 16th-ranked UC Davis men's water polo team heads to the Western Water Polo Association championship tournament as the fourth seed, looking to take down its first conference title and NCAA Championship berth since 1997. According to 12th-year head coach Steve Doten, his Aggies are playing their best water polo at just the right time.
"I think we are as prepared as we can be. We have everyone healthy and playing together, now more than any other time this season," said Doten, who has guided UC Davis to the WWPA title game in each of the last two seasons, and three of the last five. "Trevor Allen didn't play on Sunday, so we still have an injury issue. And I still don't know if Matt Vowell and Chris Richardson are at 100 percent. But conceptually, we're at our best. Our team coordination is at our best. I think it's about as good as it's going to get."
For Coach Doten, the team concept of water polo has been an underlying theme all season, and the Aggies have begun to coalesce down the final stretch of the season. As such, Doten wears a yellow wristband imprinted with the words "Band of Brothers" - from the famous Henry V verse that graduate assistant Matt Sorgenfrei invoked in a preseason speech - as a reminder to his student-athletes of that philosophy.
"I think the team chemistry is at an all-time high," said Doten. "The guys have some concepts and some plays they like to run together. I feel really good about that part of it. It's hard to have guys out for injuries or to swap lineups and still maintain that chemistry. That's the best thing about going into this conference championship is that these guys are playing so well together."
Senior Matt Vowell was announced to the All-WWPA first team on Wednesday. He is five assists shy of surpassing Grant Muenter for the school season record.
(Wayne Tilcock, Davis Enterprise)
When the season began, the team had graduated an excellent class of seniors that included two All-Americans. UC Davis, Doten hoped, would be a team without stars. Sure, several Aggies have earned individual recognition: Vowell was selected as a first-team All-WWPA honoree while Richardson made the second team. But even Vowell's nod is largely in honor of his unselfish play. The Jesuit High alum leads the Aggies with 40 assists (four off the school record) and 57 drawn exclusions, both of which measure his value to other players on the team.
Also earning recognition from the conference was freshman Philip Bates, who made the WWPA All-Freshman team. Expected to redshirt this season, Bates was called into active duty in early October when team personnel demands warranted. He delivered a strong relief appearance in the October 13 road game at Air Force, then took over the starting job the following weekend. In nine games in the cage, Bates has collected 78 saves with 15 steals in 272 minutes.
For his part, Richardson has scored a team-high 64 goals to go with 19 assists. He has performed 12 hat tricks this season, including six against WWPA foe Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and a career-high seven against Santa Clara last Sunday. Just behind him in the scoring column is sophomore Trevor Allen with 45 goals, 22 of which have come in the 11 games since the SoCal Invitational. Senior Colin Hicks (28 goals), sophomore Teddy Nicholson (31) and junior Bernie Rogers (25) have also added scoring punch from all parts of the course.
The upcoming conference tournament has particular meaning for the 2012 seniors, who look for one last chance to earn the WWPA's automatic berth to the national tournament. Besides Vowell and Hicks, that crew includes attacker Anders MacCarthy (16 goals, 21 steals), center Hank Dickey (50 drawn kickouts), utility Kevin Meisel (13 assists, 14 steals) and center Jared Clapham (12 goals in just 141 minutes).
UC Davis has reached the WWPA title game in each of the last two seasons, losing in heartbreaking fashion each time. Last year, UC San Diego edged the Aggies by a single goal, holding off a late surge to take an 8-7 win. In 2010, it was Loyola Marymount, which broke away from a late 5-4 edge to take a 9-6 victory. According to Doten, the two close calls only fuel the hunger in his team's collective bellies.
"The guys definitely have the sense of unfinished business," said Doten. "We've been there the last two years. To have the older guys who have been there twice, and the three sophomores - Richardson, Nicholson and Allen - who went last year, I think it helps. There are no surprises. What I really like most is that the guys are really hungry to get back to the championship game and resolve the bad taste in their mouth from last year."
The first obstacle in the path toward the conference crown is Santa Clara, the No. 5 seed and a three-time Aggie opponent in 2012. This will be the fourth meeting between the two teams in 2012, and the second within a span of less than a week. UC Davis ended its regular season with a 13-11 road win over the Broncos on Sunday, helped by Richardson's seven goals and Vowell's five assists. SCU is led by three All-WWPA honorees: second-team pick Jimmy Moore (31 goals, 20 assists), honorable mention Tucker Carlson (45 goals) and All-Freshman selection James Rude (19 goals, 18 assists).
The top seed in the tournament, and UC Davis' likely semifinal opponent in the event of a win over Santa Clara, is 10th-ranked UC San Diego. En route to a 14-7 overall record and a 12-2 conference mark, the Tritons defeated the Aggies in two previous meetings in 2012. UCSD claimed an 11-3 win to finish the NorCal Invitational, then held on to an 11-8 triumph at Schaal Aquatics Center on November 1. Utility Josh Stiling has scored 66 goals for the year, with five games with five or more, to earn WWPA Player of the Year honors. Senior Brian Donohoe (24 goals, 20 drawn exclusions) and sophomore goalkeeper Cameron Ravanbach (219 saves) also earned first-team All-WWPA distinction.
The favorite on the opposite end of the bracket is No. 11 Loyola Marymount, which has won eight of the 12 WWPA championships in conference history. The Lions hold a 15-9 overall ledger and a 10-2 conference mark, with the lone setbacks coming against UCSD. LMU defeated UC Davis in arguably the most thrilling contest at Schaal Aquatics Center this year, with junior John Mikuzis scoring with nine seconds remaining in a 9-8 victory. Mikuzis (35 goals), freshman Milutun Mitrovic (62 goals, 21 assists) and senior Kyle Testman (245 saves, 27 steals) each picked up first-team All-WWPA accolades.
Regardless of the magnitude of the tournament or the strength of his opponents, Coach Doten hopes his team will focus on playing team-oriented, disciplined water polo that has sent his program to the WWPA title game in years past. "At the championship level, it's a game of inches," he said. "You make a mistake and any of these teams will make you pay the other way. So we have to limit our mistakes. One of the first charges I put to the team last week was to make the other team beat us. Let's play a smart, complete game. It doesn't have to be a perfect game, just a complete game. Make them have to break down our defense, and make them play their best to get a goal. Let's not hand them easy goals. Playing smart water polo will be a key for us.
"I joke with the guys that there are a million ways to die, so let's not let one of them be that we shoot ourselves. We've tried different defenses and have learned their strengths and weaknesses through that evolution. I feel very good about the learning curve they went on, and where we are right now. Now it's time to execute."
UC Davis' first-round game against Santa Clara takes place at 10:45 a.m. on Friday. The winner of the game takes on the UC San Diego-Whittier victor in Saturday's 12:30 p.m. semifinal. The championship plus third- through seventh-place games are held on Sunday. The winner of the tournament earns the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Championship at USC, Dec. 1-2.