DAVIS, Calif. - With a 12-8 victory over UC San Diego at Santa Clara's Sullivan Aquatic Center back on November 20, UC Davis men's water polo made program history with its program-record 23rd win, capturing the Western Water Polo Association title and earning the Aggies' first NCAA postseason berth since 1997.
UPDATE NOV. 30 - VIDEO: Thanks to a coordinated effort between the UC Davis and Harvard coaching staffs, a live video stream will be available on the Aggie men's water polo YouTube channel (see above for link).
UC Davis, ranked ninth in the Nov. 23 national coaches' poll, will now face No. 10 Harvard in Thursday's first NCAA Championship play-in game at Spieker Aquatics Complex. The Crimson edged Bucknell in a 13-12 thriller to claim the unofficial East Coast title and earn a cross-country trip.
The winner of the UC Davis-Harvard game then advances to Saturday's NCAA semifinal against top-seeded USC. For fourth-year Aggie head coach Daniel Leyson, the notion of taking on his alma mater is the not even the faintest glimmer in his eyes.
"We're only concerned with Thursday, which will be an extremely tough game," said Leyson. "That's it. We're not looking past Thursday at all. It's our entire focus and preparation. If we make it past Harvard, then we'll deal with what comes next."
As for a tough game, the veteran coach knows of what he speaks. The Aggies suffered only five losses in 2016, two at the hands of Mountain Pacific Sports Federation members, two against members of the new Gold Coast Conference, and one against Harvard.
Furthermore, UC Davis opened with close clashes in four of its five tournaments this year. A 5-4 victory over Cal Baptist began the WWPA Championship two weekends ago. A 7-5 loss to then-No. 7 Long Beach State launched the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
The other two involved the nation's oldest university: Harvard edged UC Davis, 13-12, to open the 2016 season at Brown's Bruno Invite. Seven weeks later, the Aggies nipped the Crimson by a 7-6 margin to kick off Santa Clara's Rodeo tournament. Of course, this season's series does not include the previous meeting: Harvard's 10-9 overtime win at the Rodeo in 2015.
"We've played Harvard quite a few times and I feel like they know what to expect from us just as we know what to expect from them," said Leyson. "So now it's a question of who executes best in the important moments."
Among those key situations are the always-important power plays, both for and against. UC Davis has enjoyed particular success in this area: its 54.1 percent success rate (105-for-194) in 6-on-5 situations is the program's best since such stats began in 2004. Likewise, the Aggie five-man defense has been particularly potent down the stretch, allowing just four goals on 25 opponent power plays in the last four games.
Another Aggie strength has been its balanced scoring. Eight players have scored at least 20 goals this year, led by a trio of All-WWPA honorees: sophomores Ido Goldschmidt (45), Sasa Antunovic (44) and Marcus Anderson (42). Right behind that crew is Riley Venne (35), All-WWPA honorable mention Cory Laidig (32), Eric Martel (29), Morgan Olson-Fabbro (28) and Tennyson May (26). As a result, UC Davis averages better than 12 goals per game on offense, and yet ranks no players in the WWPA's top five scorers.
On the flipside, credit the Aggie defense for holding teams to just 213 goals (7.6 per game). Junior goalkeeper Spencer Creed has guarded the cage for 221 saves and a .539 average to go with a team-leading 43 steals. Laidig enters the weekend with 41, helping UC Davis compile a team record of 320. (Note: steals records date back to 2004.)
"I think we're in a good position, but we have to keep trying to get better at the things we're doing," said Leyson. "We still have a lot of areas where we can improve, and Harvard presents some different difficulties than UC San Diego and Cal Baptist did. I feel like we've been playing well down the stretch, and I expect us to play well in this game as well."
Thursday's game against Harvard starts at 4:30 p.m. A tournament website is available at www.calbears.com/sports/2016/11/21/2016-MPolo-NCAAs.aspx. Live stats are only available for the semifinals and final. However, a live video stream can be found at the UC Davis men's water polo YouTube channel (link above).
UC Davis broke the previous program record of 22 wins in the WWPA title game, shared by the 2007 and 2011 squads... At 22-7, the 2007 Aggies holds the benchmark for winning percentage (.759)... However, any combination of wins and losses this weekend ensures that record will also fall: UC Davis enters the NCAA Championship at 23-5 (.821).
This is the program's fifth NCAA appearance, joining 1974 (5th), 1975 (8th), 1996 (4th) and 1997 (3rd)... The national championship featured only four teams in the 1990s but has since expanded to include play-in games.
Reaching the NCAA tournament ensures UC Davis a minimum of 25 points toward the Learfield Directors' Cup... The last Aggie team to achieve this feat was women's track in June 2015 (t48th at NCAA Championships), thanks to middle distance runner Rocki Lambdin... The two golf teams also reached the NCAA postseason weeks earlier... UC Davis won six Directors Cups during its Division II era... Its highest finish as a Div. I program was 95th in 2007-08.
Sophomore Sasa Antunovic captured Kap7/WWPA Player of the Week on October 19 and November 16, the only player (from any team) to win the honor more than once this season.
UC Davis has won one of the conference's major awards each year of Daniel Leyson's tenure at the Aggie helm... Ido Goldschmidt (2016), Sean Grab (2015) and Bernie Rogers (2013) each claimed WWPA Player of the Year, while Cory Laidig (2014) took home WWPA Freshman of the Year accolades.
No fewer than eight Aggies have scored at least 20 goals this season, with two others (Brock Gordon and Yurii Hanley) at 17... The previous high was seven, by the 2011 team, which achieved that feat in six more games.
UC Davis had five honorees on the All-WWPA rolls, not counting Hanley's appearance on the All-Freshman team... Antunovic and Goldschmidt made the first team, Spencer Creed and Marcus Anderson earned second-team nods, and Cory Laidig garnered honorable mention... The previous high was four, most recently by the 2015 team: Antunovic (first team), Goldschmidt (second team), Creed (second team) and WWPA Player of the Year Sean Grab... The 2007 Aggies also landed four: Mike McGee (POY), Nick Arrigo (first team), Adam Bennett (second team) and Grant Muenter (honorable mention).
UC DAVIS-HARVARD SERIES: Each of the three previous meetings were settled by a single goal... The 2016 season opener, which Harvard won by a 13-12 final, featured four lead changes and six ties... Goldschmidt had three goals and three assists, but Harvard senior attacker Noah Harrison hit the game-winner with 80 seconds left... The October 22 meeting at the Rodeo saw three ties and just two lead changes, but the Aggies had to come back from a 3-1 deficit... Riley Venne netted two goals with Goldschmidt scoring the go-ahead early in the fourth... The October 25, 2015 meeting had four lead changes and seven ties before Harvard prevailed on a Joey Colton goal with 2:18 left in overtime...
Harrison scored three goals in that meeting while Goldschmidt hit a game-high five... Harrison has scored 13 goals in the four previous meetings: four as a freshman in Harvard's 14-11 upset back in 2013, three in the 2015 overtime battle, four in the 2016 season opener, and two at this year's Rodeo... Harvard holds a 4-3 lead in the overall series, per records dating back to 1991.