Nov. 18, 2013
DAVIS, Calif. - An intense week of practice, a Saturday intrasquad scrimmage and an unrelenting sense of purpose provides all the necessary preparation head coach Daniel Leyson can ask for as his 11th-ranked UC Davis men's water polo team enters the Western Water Polo Association championship tournament, held at its home pool of Schaal Aquatics Center this Friday through Sunday.
The Aggies, owning a perfect 5-0 record in the designated conference games and a 9-0 mark in all 2013 contests against WWPA members, holds the No. 1 seed in the tournament. They have a bye through Friday's first round, opening action in Saturday's 12:15 p.m. semifinal against the lower-seeded Friday winner. Sunday's champion will earn the conference's automatic qualifier to the National Collegiate Championship, which UC Davis last made in 1997.
However, Coach Leyson has logged enough years in the profession to make sure his team remains sharp in its preparation for this weekend. The top seed, the home-course advantage, the past results all can impose an unusual amount of pressure and/or distraction on a team, so his top priority is to maintain the same level of focus and preparation for this tournament that served UC Davis in the previous weekends.
"On the one hand, being the No. 1 seed puts you in the good position on the first day where you can sit back, watch the other teams and get one last opportunity to scout," Leyson said. "On the other hand, the element of surprise is completely gone. Teams are now preparing in earnest for us. We had the opportunity to play as the underdog, and now we have a different set of circumstances. There is added pressure to being the No. 1 seed and we have to respond. That's how it is."
Certainly on paper, the Aggies played the role of underdog throughout the season. Prior to the season, UC Davis was selected fourth in the coaches' poll, with all six first-place votes going to Loyola Marymount, Air Force or UC San Diego. By the time the WWPA schedule kicked in, the Aggies had dropped to No. 17 in the national rankings, mostly due to a tough Sunday performance at Santa Clara's Rodeo tournament. UC Davis responded with a 12-10 win over Loyola Marymount and a 12-11 sudden victory at UC San Diego, then returned home to post resounding victories against SCU and Air Force at Schaal the following weekend.
Senior attacker Bernie Rogers won back-to-back KAP7 WWPA Player of the Week awards for his performance in conference play. He shot 13-for-27 with seven assists and 11 steals in the five conference games, highlighting this run with the sudden-victory goal against then-No. 10 UC San Diego. Junior Chris Richardson, a 2012 All-WWPA second-team pick, made his case for another all-league nod by scoring 10 goals with 10 drawn exclusions in conference. That veteran duo plus junior Trevor Allen have combined for 127 goals during the 2013 season, more than half of the team's total output.
Sophomore Austin Beckwith also has enjoyed a breakout season, scoring 19 goals with 12 assists while averaging more than 20 minutes per game. Junior Michael Wright, who quite literally has water polo knowledge in his DNA, has also provided almost 21 minutes of play as a defensive stalwart. In fact, it is the Aggies' overall team defense that has been the true MVP of the conference season: UC Davis has held opponents to less than 30 percent on power plays, surrendered just seven goals per game, and allowed goalkeepers Philip Bates and Zach Tudhope to compile a .643 save average between them.
Yet again, Leyson takes caution in reading too much into those individual accomplishments or the previous scores, knowing full well that each WWPA opponent has placed a target on the Aggies' collective back. "I believe the results in the individual conference games have no bearing on the future results," he said. "Looking at the past conference games, seeing what happened earlier in November, and thinking they just happen again this weekend - that's a huge mistake. We just have to keep on moving forward and keep our heads down.
"But everyone is excited, I'm super-excited for the guys. We just want to keep our emotions under control and do the best we can."
Fueling both the excitement and caution is the conference's six-team field, arguably the toughest in WWPA history in terms of top-to-bottom strength. UC San Diego (No. 10), UC Davis (No. 12), Santa Clara (No. 14) and Loyola Marymount (No. 15) all appeared in last Wednesday's coaches' poll, with Cal Baptist and Air Force receiving votes.
UC SAN DIEGO (12-13, 4-1) followed its loss to UC Davis with 15-13 overtime setback to No. 8 Long Beach State and a one-goal heartbreaker against No. 9 UC Irvine, dropping the latter due to an Anteater goal with just 17 seconds left in regulation. Juniors Tommy Friedrich and Joe Dietrich lead the Tritons offensively with 43 and 42 goals, respectively. Sophomore utility Chase Cockerill tops the WWPA assists leaderboard with 36 assists while adding 39 steals. UCSD won the 2011 conference championship but was upset by Air Force in last year's tournament final.
SANTA CLARA (15-14, 3-2) managed to hold fifth-ranked California to a slim 4-2 halftime lead before succumbing by a seven-goal margin in its regular-season finale on Friday. The Broncos posted a 10-6 victory against LMU and a 13-7 win at home versus Air Force before their 11-4 loss to UC Davis on November 10. Senior 2M Tucker Carlson leads SCU in scoring for a second straight year, this time with 39 goals in 29 games.
LOYOLA MARYMOUNT (13-12, 2-3) battled No. 8 Long Beach State to a one-goal deficit midway through the third quarter before falling by a 12-10 final on Thursday. Sophomore attacker Milutun Mitrovic leads all WWPA players with 62 goals and ranks second with 35 assists. The Lions own perhaps the most glittering history at the conference tournament in recent years, having won seven of eight conference titles from 2004 through 2010.
AIR FORCE (5-13, 1-4) holds the slimmest schedule of the six conference teams, having lost a chunk of games - namely the esteemed UCI Invitational - to the federal shutdown in October. The defending champions suffered some tough losses to begin the season, including a 12-11 double sudden-victory setback to UC Davis followed by a 12-11 overtime upset to Redlands. Leading the Falcons is two-time All-WWPA first-team pick and team captain Josh Stedman, who ranks among league leaders with 41 goals and 29 steals.
CAL BAPTIST (15-15, 0-5) owns a misleading win-loss record in its first year as a WWPA member. Although the Lancers finished 0-5 in conference, the losses to UC San Diego and Loyola Marymount were decided by one goal each while the losses to Air Force and Santa Clara had just two-goal margins. CBU fell to UC Davis by a more convincing 13-3 final to open the Rodeo tournament in the official WWPA matchup but battled the Aggies to just a 12-10 score at the Triton Invite. Freshman Joseph Moorman boasts the stingiest save percentage in the conference, tallying 231 blocks against just 129 goals allowed for a whopping .642 success rate.
The WWPA Championship opens on Friday with the LMU-Air Force quarterfinal at 12:15 p.m. Complete pairings, ticket information, maps and directions, plus results will be available at the tournament website: www.ucdavisaggies.com/sports/m-wpolo/spec-rel/2013wwpa.html.
2013 WWPA MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE
FRIDAY, NOV. 22
Game 1: No. 4 Loyola Marymount vs. No. 5 Air Force, 12:15 p.m.
Game 2: No. 3 Santa Clara vs. No. 6 Cal Baptist, 2 p.m.
SATURDAY, NOV. 23
Game 3: No. 1 UC Davis vs. lowest-seeded advancing team, 12:15 p.m.
Game 4: No. 2 UC San Diego vs. highest-seeded advancing team, 2 p.m.
SUNDAY, NOV. 24
Game 5: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 10:30 p.m. (Fifth Place)
Game 6: Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 12:15 p.m. (Third Place)
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 2 p.m. (Championship)