Men’s college water polo is slated to get up and running in the next two weeks with many of the top 20 teams on the ACWPA preseason poll (including the top 6 teams) set to play their first games on September 7. Hopefully, we can see a season as exhilarating as the last which held some truly amazing results such as: Long Beach returning to NCAA tournament play for the first time since 1991, UCSD reaching the final four and of course the final between Stanford and USC which saw USC take a 5-0 advantage in the first quarter before Stanford’s comeback fell short with USC leaving victorious for their first ring since 2013 (where they beat the same team at the same venue).
On August 21, ACWPC released the official Men’s Varsity Preseason Poll, where a panel of coaches from all conferences, unsurprisingly, voted on the likelihood of USC going back-to-back, or even create a dynasty such as the players from 2008-2013 did as they won 6 championships in a row. However, there are many teams who would disagree with this prospect and are out to prove the majority wrong.
University of Southern California
USC deservingly finished atop of the Preseason poll after a 30-3 record, a national championship and most importantly, returning many key players to try and repeat last year’s achievements.
USC is returning experienced Australian goalkeeper Nic Porter, who was a wall in goals for USC averaging 9.76 saves per game for a grand total of 164 saves including a 15 save performance against Cal and 12 crucial saves against Stanford in the NCAA Final. Porter also finds himself in a position where a successful campaign with USC this season could land him on the Australian team for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020, ironically competing against former USC legend, Joel Dennerly who achieved the near impossible feat of 4 NCAA championships in 4 seasons.
At the other end of the pool, USC are returning Marko Vavic, who was responsible for 57 of USC’s goals last season, potentially trying to chase older brother Nikola Vavic who played with the Trojans from 2010-2013 and is 2nd on USC’s all time scorer list. Vavic scored in an impressive 28 out of 33 games for USC in his sophomore year. Marko is also pushing for a spot on his respective olympic team of USA and is looking to put his case forward this season.
Arguably the most important player that USC is returning is All-American First Team, All-MPSF First Team and NCAA Tournament MVP Jacob Mercep. Mercep was top scorer for USC in his first year as a Trojan, tallying 62 goals.
“This is like a dream come true… we knew this was our year.”Mercep after winning his first ring and being named NCAA tournament MVP.
USC are slated to start their season in a more relaxed, fun-spirited fixture against their own Alumni September 7. USC’s full season schedule can be found here.
University of California, Los Angeles
UCLA find themselves tied for second place with Stanford in the preseason poll following a 23-5 record, 8-0 home record and a T-3rd place finish at the NCAA tournament (on account of there being no bronze medal match in the current format).
Senior goalkeeper Alex Wolf, who has had an impressive rise to success after facing the hard task of filling the large shoes left by 2-time NCAA champion Garrett Danner, will be looking to build off last season. Wolf also now finds himself in a position where he could be representing his country at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games if he can keep up his current form. Wolf tallied 179 saved while only allowing 6.79 goals per game. The senior goalkeeper was one of two UCLA players who were selected on the All-American first team last season.
The other, was sharpshooter Nicolas Saveljic. The Montenegrin native led his team in goals (51), steals (24) and held an impressive sprints won/lost ratio of 23-8. Teams will be on notice as the senior will be looking to lead his team from the front and recreate their impressive 2017 season where they won the NCAA tournament as underdogs after losing a legendary 2016 senior class through graduation.
Another player to lookout for is sophomore Ashworth Molthen. Molthen had an impressive freshman campaign finishing third on the team for goals with 32. The young attacker will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Saveljic this year so that come next year, he will be poised to lead his young team to success. Molthen has also been a constant member of junior and senior national squads and will be looking to bring this experience to the pool for UCLA and coach Adam Wright.
UCLA will start their campaign in Annapolis, Maryland at the Navy Open on Sep 7-8. UCLA’s full season schedule can be found here.
Stanford found themselves in the NCAA final for the first time since 2008 thanks to a 21-3 record, but fell just short of their first title since 2002 after a hard fought second half comeback against USC fell short. However, Stanford will be returning a mix of youth and experience for their 2019 season, and will be determined to do one better than last year.
Stanford will be returning all three of their top scorers from last season including senior Bennett Williams. The 6-3 attacker from Laguna Niguel will be looking to lead his team as one of only three seniors on the squad. Williams recorded 62 goals last season, 3 short of Hallock’s team topping total. The senior was particularly important in Stanford’s 13-7 victory over Pepperdine as he recorded a game-high 6 goals for the Cardinal.
Junior, Tyler Abramson enters his third year for Stanford and brings some international experience to the squad as he was a part of the very strong 2017 Junior USA National Team which competed at the World Championships. Abramson was third on the team in scoring with 57 goals and had two career-high matches against GCC heavy weights Pacific & Long Beach State, scoring 5 in each. The junior attacker also stepped up in the MPSF championship game, scoring 4 second-half goals against Cal to book their ticket to the NCAA Championship.
Undoubtedly the Cardinal’s biggest threat in the pool is 2018 Peter J. Cutino award recipient, 2018 ACWPA Coaches National Player of the Year and 2018 First Team All-American Ben Hallock. Despite being double- and triple-teamed for nearly every contest, Hallock led his team with 65 goals, scoring a hattrick in 12 matches and a season-high 8 in a win a against UC Irvine.
The sophomore is one of two individuals in program history to win the Peter J. Cutino Award, which recognizes the most outstanding men’s and women’s water polo player, joining arguably the greatest American men’s water polo player ever, Tony Azevedo.
We caught up with Ben Hallock, asking him a few questions about the upcoming season:
“With having been so close to accomplishing the ultimate goal of winning a national championship, the team atmosphere is energetic to say the least. The approach and mindset of everyone has been so dialed in on preparing for the upcoming season.”Ben Hallock in response to asking what the atmosphere is like within the team this year trying to do one better.
Hallock has unsurprisingly, been a member of team USA for a while now, thanks to two amazing seasons to start his career with Stanford. When asked what he takes away from his international experience to his everyday approach with Stanford Ben answered:
“International water polo is such a different experience in terms of the style of how the sport is played, that it forces you to be much more adaptive within the game which can be a huge advantage at the college level. Also, just being able to observe the worlds best players and how they approach practice and games is super valuable information in terms of continually growing and improving as a player.”Ben Hallock
The Cardinal will also get their season underway in Annapolis, Maryland at the Navy Open on Sep 7-8, however, they will not cross paths with UCLA until later in the season. Stanford’s full season schedule can be found here.
University of California, Berkeley
Cal will be looking to replace a few key pieces this year after graduating superstars Vassilis Tzavaras, Johnny Hooper and Greek native Odysseas Masmanidis. These three players were pivotal in Cal’s 2016 NCAA Championship, alongside Luca Cupido & Lazar Andric. The Bears finished with an overall record of 18-6 which, by their own very high standards, will be looking to improve on in 2019.
Turkish native Safak Simsek, who has experience playing for European powerhouse Galatasaray will attempt to put his strong left arm to good use and continue scoring goals at a consistent rate. Simsek finished 2nd amongst Cal players in goals scored with 47 in 2018.
Another European import, Nikos Delagrammatikas will prove important at 2m as he enters his junior season with the bears. Coach Everist has labeled the Greek junior as “one of Cal’s most consistent all-around players” in his sophomore season as listed on the team’s website. Delagrammatikas did not dominate any stat category but did prove his worth while contributing all around the pool in both offense and defense.
The man with the role of leading the Bears in 2019 is Jordan Hoover.
“Jordan Hoover is our team captain. He knows the ropes & has grown up in this program. I’m ready to see him lead this fall.”Head Coach Kirk Everist on Jordan Hoover being appointed team captain.
The 6-2 attacker from Moraga, California will be entering his fifth year with Berkeley after he joined the Bears in 2015 and redshirted. From his redshirt freshman year he was a key part of Cal’s offense scoring multiple goals in a match 6 times. Last year, he ranked 4th on the team in goals with 33 goals and earned an ALL-MPSF honorable mention as a junior in 2018 thanks to a strong season at two meters for the Bears. He also added 29 ejections earned, 15 steals and 8 field blocks.
The bears will get their season up and running on Sep 7 at the Triton Invite in San Diego. Cal’s full schedule is available here.
Pacific enter the season as tied 5th favorites with conference rivals Long Beach State. Pacific looks to improve on a rather disappointing season as were unable to secure a ticket to the NCAA championship after going down to Long Beach State in conference play. Pacific has many new and experienced weapons for technically focused coach James Graham to propel into their offensive systems. The Tigers finished with a .500 record of 12-12, however, they managed a 4-1 conference record in regular season.
The Tigers have a few faces to bolster their squad, one of them being Djordje Stanic. The 6-4 Belgrade, Serbia native will add depth, size, and offensive prowess to a dynamic Tiger team. Stanic competed in the Northeast conference with the Terriers for one season and put up some impressive numbers. 40 goals, 20 assists & 17 steals. These stats earned him the Northeast Water Polo Conference Freshman of the Year. This addition is typical of James Graham and his staff as they put an emphasis on recruitment from outside normal tournaments and methods.
The two most important players for the Tigers will be their two All-Americans from 2018. The first of which being their Turkish senior attacker, Engin Ege Colak. Colak started in all 24 games for Pacific, registering hat tricks in 11 of these games. One of his more impressive outings was his career-high match against UC Irvine where he bagged himself 7 goals. Overall, he finished with 66 goals (second on the team) on a .349 shooting percentage, and leading the team with 29 drawn exclusions. He repeated his 2017 accolade and earned All-GCC First Team honors.
In 2019, Luke Pavillard proved why he would be backed back-to-back Golden Coast Conference Player of the Year leading team and conference with 78 goals. Also recorded a conference topping 44 steals and 11 blocks. Led the GCC in goals per game (3.25), steals per game (1.83), and points per game (4.43). Pavillard will once again be called upon by the orange and black to put up monster numbers in their quest to return to the NCAA tournament and make a run into the semi-finals and further.
“These are two well-deserved awards for two well-rounded players, Luke and Ege have played a tremendous role for our program for the last three years. It’s exciting to see their growth and we’re extremely fortunate to have them back to lead our team next year.”Head Coach James Graham on his appreciation for his two All-Americans.
Pacific open their season at home on Sep 7 against Santa Clara. Their full schedule can be found here.
California State University, Long Beach
Tied with Pacific with 74 points in the preseason poll. Long Beach look to build on a bittersweet season.They won their first ever GCC tournament in front of a packed home pool and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991, ending the longest drought in program history However, they failed to capitalize on this opportunity, failing to win their play-in game, being upset by lower seed UCSD. Long Beach had a very up and down season starting off slow but finishing with a 14-12 overall record.
Long Beach will have a very interesting season ahead of them with many aspects being fluid. One pivotal athlete for the beach will be the fourth year Serbian Nemanja Bakic. Bakic started his career at The Beach in 2016 putting up strong numbers and then building on this is 2017, combining the two seasons for 59 goals and being instrumental in attack on and off the ball. However a major shoulder injury put a halt to these numbers. After taking 2018 off, he will be looking to return to form and lead the beach from the front, utilizing his experience with the Serbian Junior National Team and European heavyweights Redstar.
Fifth year veteran Austin Stewart will look to put up impressive numbers for a fourth year in a row as he enters the season as the sole super senior on the team. Stewart was vital to his teams offense leading the team in scoring with 56 goals, outscoring all other players by 31 goals. He completed those goals on an impressive .683 shooting percentage which also lead the team. Austin also finished second on the team with 12 steals. Teams will no doubt be looking to keep Stewart quiet and force other members of Long Beach to shoot.
Egyptian goalkeeper Marwan Darwish had a breakout season. Called upon to start the season as the team’s number one goalkeeper, he set his goals high. Darwish finished the season with 184 saves on .487 save percentage. Beyond numbers, Marwan turned it up a gear and led his team through an undefeated conference tournament, beating tournament favorites Pacific and shutting down their explosive attack in front of an amped Long Beach crowd. Darwish once again looks to be the number one keeper at the Beach after being the first person to collect GCC Tournament MVP in program history.
We caught up with Marwan and talked to him about the past, present and future for Long Beach State.
“Wining conference last year was just the beginning for us. We are looking to being back to back conference champions and going even beyond that in the NCAA championship. We have new assets on the team that will help us achieve our goals we are well prepared and ready for season watch out for Long Beach State this year.”Marwan Darwish
Long Beach will also get their season underway at the Triton Invite in San Diego on Sep 7. For their full schedule click here.
The rest of the rankings are as followed:
T-7th: University of California, Santa Barbara
T-7th: Pepperdine University
9th: University of California, San Diego
10th: University of California, Davis
11th: Harvard University
12th: Princeton University
13th: University of California, Irvine
14th: Loyola Marymount University
15th George Washington University
T-16th: Bucknell University
T-16th: California Baptist University
18th: San Jose State University
19th: Pomona-Pitzer College
20th: Brown University