Nov. 25, 2013
DAVIS, Calif. - Almost six months to the day after he was announced as the new UC Davis head men's water polo coach, Daniel Leyson stood poolside as his players competed in Sunday's Western Water Polo Association title game against 10th-ranked UC San Diego.
Just five months prior, he was issued a key to his new office. When he took his department photo, he wore a blue polo shirt rather than the usual coat and tie because he had not fully moved in from his previous Southern California residence. At the start of summer training, Leyson turned to assistant coach Kevin Peat for a refresher on who was who.
"I can remember thinking what number month June is, and I think about what number month we're in now," he says. "That's basically five months together, and we've made some great strides. The future is really bright for UC Davis men's water polo."
That progress culminated in Sunday's conference championship game. The Aggies entered the season as the No. 4 pick (among six teams) in the WWPA coaches' poll, and 17th in the preseason national rankings. The team enjoyed a few thrilling victories in the early going, such as a triple-overtime win over Air Force in the opening weekend; suffered a few heartbreaking near misses, like a 12-11 overtime loss to then-No. 7 UC Irvine and a 10-8 setback to No. 8 Pepperdine at the UCI Invitational.
A brutally tough schedule did few favors for the win-loss record, as UC Davis took on more Top 20 foes - 23 of them - than any other WWPA member. Six losses came at the hands of the "Big Five" teams: the four traditional Pac-12 teams plus emerging national contender Pacific. The Aggies fell to Cal, Stanford and Pacific by a combined 105-35 margin, making it tougher to accurately gauge a relatively inexperienced team that has graduated seven players the year before.
Oddly, the season took a turn for the better at a juncture that appeared to be a low point. UC Davis, which had climbed to No. 11 after wins over UCSD and St. Francis two weeks prior, suffered back-to-back upsets against No. 19 Harvard and No. 20 Brown on the second day of Santa Clara's Rodeo tournament. On paper, the losses dropped the Aggies six spots in the national poll, one of the largest plunges by any ranked team in 2013.
Although disappointed with the Day 2 results, Leyson saw a key silver lining to that weekend. UC Davis had played its best water polo of the year to start that weekend, beating then 17th-ranked WWPA member Cal Baptist by a 13-3 final on Saturday morning. It had marked the team's largest margin of victory against a Top 20 team in the recorded history of the program (the athletics department began keeping reliable win-loss records in 1991).
"It's not as important now how we played in the fourth game on Sunday because from here on out, it's one game per day," said Leyson, after the Rodeo tournament. "When we were fresh, we played great, and that's what I take from the weekend."
Indeed, Leyson's Aggies proved that the Cal Baptist win served as a turning point. They followed with a 12-10 win at Loyola Marymount on November 1, then made the drive down to La Jolla to dispatch UC San Diego in a 12-11 sudden victory less than 24 hours later. UC Davis had emerged from what loomed as its toughest road trip of the year with a 3-0 conference record. Senior Bernie Rogers scored five goals against the Lions then hit the game-winner in extra frames in Saturday's win over the Tritons to take down his second WWPA Player of the Week award.
The Aggies followed that win a resounding 11-4 triumph against Santa Clara and a 13-7 win over Air Force during the Veteran's Day weekend, finishing the WWPA season with a perfect 5-0 record. Rogers repeated as the conference's KAP7 Player of the Week honoree. He closed out conference play with 13 goals, seven assists and 11 steals in the five conference games. Junior Chris Richardson contributed another 10 goals with 11 drawn exclusions in league.
However, the conference slate saw other Aggies step up their play. Junior Teddy Nicholson, a former WWPA All-Freshman honoree who had shot .515 as a sophomore in 2012, shot 9-for-15 in just 80 minutes of play. Speedy sophomore Austin Beckwith nearly equaled his entire season output with nine goals and six assists in the five games. Sophomore goalkeeper Philip Bates compiled a glittering save percentage of 64.2, tallying 52 saves against just 29 goals. His reliever, redshirt freshman Zach Tudhope, supplied a similar 64.7 percent success rate (11 saves, six GA).
The elevated play seemed to come from every corner of the roster: veterans, transfers, former role players now summoned to the front lines, freshmen Junior Michael Wright had always been a defensive stalwart but now the Aggies could rely on true freshman Zoltan Lazar for quality minutes at center defense. Another first-year player, center Max Vigeant, joined Nicholson to form a solid 1-2 platoon at set.
Certainly, the avid followers of UC Davis men's water polo program could see the progress the team had made heading into the conference tournament. The final regular-season weekend seemed to stand as a measuring stick. The Aggies, who had sneaked past Air Force in that double-sudden-victory win on September, claimed a convincing six-goal win on November. The first UC Davis-Santa Clara meeting played down to a one-goal margin. The second saw the Aggies hold the Broncos to four goals, a season low other than the CBU win at the Rodeo.
However, the team's growth came as no surprise to Leyson. "I've said from the beginning that I would set the expectations high and I strongly believed that the players would strive to reach those expectations or maybe slightly above what they think," he said. "I really appreciate the way they responded to some unforeseen circumstances and the unknowns of a coaching change. They worked super hard, they bought in and believed, and we accomplished a lot of fun things along the way."
According to Leyson, however, Rogers' contributions to the year extend far beyond the awards and the stat sheet. "It can be difficult for a senior who has played for a different coach for so many years to have a new coach. I'll always be grateful for the way he handled that situation. He was the liaison between me and the rest of the team. He was an outstanding captain and he also played fantastic water polo.
"In our postgame meeting, I told all of the seniors that they had a hand in creating the new culture and the new direction that our program is headed in. They can always look back and know they were a part of that change. Bernie was fundamental in that."
UC Davis eventually fell to UC San Diego in a 6-4 defensive battle in Sunday's WWPA championship game. The chance to compete in the program's first NCAA appearance since 1997 will have to wait another year. The initial sting of losing, plus the second-guessing and what-ifs that follow, linger with Coach Leyson. However, it carries both a sense of satisfaction of bringing a program to that stage, and a hunger for future opportunities.
"That feeling of excitement around those really important games at the end of the year, and the culmination of being a part of that final game - that was so much fun. It's an addictive feeling, and we want to have it every year. We will strive to get back to that final every year. We want to be there."
SKIP SHOTS: Although the final poll will not come out until after the NCAA Championship, the No. 11 Aggies have a shot to post their highest season-ending ranking since closing 2007 and 2008 at the 11th spot... Richardson finishes the season with 158 career goals, seventh in school history... He will need 45 in 2014 to overtake Kevin Quinn as the program's all-time leader (1993-present)... Richardson's season scoring totals have been 42, 67 and 49...The two-time All-WWPA pick also became the new UC Davis career leader in drawn exclusions with 130 (2005-present)... Rogers finishes at 5th among both the school's season (32) and career (66) leaders (2005-present)... Bates already moves into 5th in career saves (334), bumping Zach Wordes (312, 2002-03)... Of course, the Aggie saves rankings are dominated by three four-year starters: Mike DeJong (1994-97), Mike McGee (2004-07) and Kevin Peat (2008-11)... This season marks the sixth time UC Davis has reached the WWPA title game, along with 2011, 2010, 2007, 1997 and 1996.