Everything’s Coming Up Trojan and More: NCAA Water Polo Round-Up

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Marko and Jovan Vavic embrace in the pool after USC wins 2018 NCAA Men's Water Polo title. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo. Swimming World Contributor

On Sunday, the NCAA men’s varsity water polo season came to a close as USC jumped out to a huge lead then held on for a 14-12 national title win over Stanford at Avery Aquatic Center. It was a fitting end to the NCAA’s fiftieth national championship tournament; USC, which did not win a title in the first three decades of tournament play has now captured ten since 1998.

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What was most surprising about the final was the way the Trojans won in the Cardinal pool. The two teams had already traded wins—host Stanford took a 13-11 decision over USC on October 6 and the visiting Trojans returned the favor a week later. Therefore, a close, hard-fought final was a reasonable expectation—perhaps a match as exciting as the 8-7 Trojan semifinal victory over UCLA the night before.

[Dante Dettamanti on 50 Years of NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championships]

As anyone who watched knows, USC enjoyed an unbelievably one-sided start followed by a fierce but ultimately fruitless rally by Stanford, a tale of two halves that raises questions. Follows is a breakdown of how Jovan Vavic’s team so thoroughly out-played Stanford for the match’s first eight minutes, setting a pace that John Vargas’ charges simply couldn’t equal.

“There are going to be games like this where everything goes your way,”

This is how Vavic characterized his team searing 5-0 start in the first period. Flanked by MVP Jacob Mercep and super senior Zach D’Sa (he of the mustache craze for USC players) at the press conference immediately following the match, the venerable coach added: “We started the game hot and sometimes that’s all it takes.”

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The D’Sa extended family rockin’ the signature ‘stache. Photo Courtesy: Cathayn Hayne

Perhaps, but looking back on that critical first period, where the Cardinal got buried, some things stand out:

– Despite not scoring, Stanford’s Ben Hallock did his part. The Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s 2018 Player of the Year—and likely Cutino Award nominee—drew an exclusion a minute into the game and another two and a half minutes in. These were two of four man-ups that Stanford squandered in the period.

Blake Parrish did not deliver for the home side. His strong-side shot at 6:10 was swatted away by SC goalie Nic Porter; then, his team already down by three and desperate for a goal, Parrish had his power play scoring strike at five minutes waived off because he was inside 2-meters.

Sawyer Rhodes—the former Cardinal—made his ex-teammates pay. Hitting on the game’s second goal after the Trojans had already killed two Stanford power plays, Rhodes must have had a deep sense of satisfaction silencing the jeers that accompanied his return to Avery.

December 1, 2018; , Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Men's Water Polo:NCAA Semi Finals: UC San Diego Tritons vs Stanford Cardinals; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

The only time all weekend Ben Hallock (#6) was out of position. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Bennett Williams’ miss on Stanford’s first man-up was a telling blow. He tried to quickly slip one past Porter, but he was ready—as was the USC cross bar, which kept out what might have been a game-changing score.

Jacob Mercep was deadly accurate. His first goal just seconds after Williams’ miss was a thunderbolt; his second—completing the Trojans’ first period uprising—was a surgical dagger; a weak-side power play score after the disorganized Stanford defense neglected to cover him.

Nic Porter may not have been the best goalie in the tournament (hard to deny Alex Wolf that honor), but he twice stopped the Cardinal on his doorstep; the one time he failed (Parrish) the goal was disallowed. A huge performance by the freshman.

As Greg Mescall, who announced the match for the NCAA, remarked with the decisive first period winding down: “You could not have designed a better start for USC.”

Which begs the question; how did this opening quarter—between two teams who knew each other well—turn out so one-sided?

Following are a few of many opinions circulating among American water polo cognoscenti.

WATER POLO PLANET POSTER:

How many of those [exclusions] has Hallock drawn? This is the kind of stat folks cite to show lopsided refereeing, and what it really shows is a smart tactical choice by USC–we’ll take those exclusions to shut Hallock down, and count on our defense to shut down the 6-5’s.

In the first quarter I was thinking the exclusions would eventually come to hurt USC, but they seem to be spreading them around and have the depth to keep taking them. And Stanford simply can’t convert, with Porter having a great game to help with that.

November 29, 2018; Avery Aquatic Center, Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Water Polo: NCAA Quarter Finals: UCLA vs George Washington University; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

It wasn’t ALL Trojans! UCLA’s Alex Wolf was named the tournament’s best goalie. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

FORMER WEST COAST POLO PLAYER:

Every game Stanford played this year, there were 3 defenders in the vicinity of Hallock to try and keep the ball out of his hands. It’s an effective defense when Stanford’s other players don’t make open shots.

Vavic decided to press the perimeter instead of dropping on Hallock. This put a ton of pressure on the Stanford perimeter. When they did get the ball to Hallock, USC just took the exclusion on purpose knowing they could handle the Stanford 6/5.

Another benefit of the press is being able to counter attack, and nobody has faster swimmers than USC. Vargas did not have his team prepared to face this kind of defense. Before you know it, they are getting blown out. USC went into prevent mode and Stanford came roaring back.

CURRENT EAST COAST POLO PLAYER:

I haven’t watched very many games between the Big 4 this year, but it looked like the USC defense made adjustments. First, when they were even there were many cases when they would simply double-team Hallock and split the other positions. When that happened, Stanford seemed lost and they lacked the ball movement and drives to break a defense like that down.  

Another great thing that happens when you split on defense is the opportunity to go on the counter. USC had at least 2 – 3 counter goals 1 on none with the keeper.

As far as the man up goes, again, when USC covered Hallock on the outside and the lefty [Tyler Abramson]—who has been big for Stanford on the man-up this year— the other guys kind of lacked patience and confidence to put those shots away. They also couldn’t find the posts which is important to do when defense is quick to jump on your outside shooters.  

Obviously, I can’t hear what coaches are telling the teams, but it really seemed like Vavic out-coached Vargas big time. Vavic switched up the whole defense and that’s what won them the game.

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Shane Morphy, outgoing Gannon polo coach.Photo Courtesy: Matt Mead

Shane Unger, new coach at Gannon, replacing Sean Morphy

Gannon is a fascinating program. Their men play in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-West, and were superb for much of the season, riding a 20-match winning streak (21 if you count a win in last year’s MAWPC tournament) into a semifinal match this year against McKendree. The Golden Knights lost, but their conference record the last three years means they’ll be in the hunt again in 2019.

[Gannon University Hires Shane Unger as New Head Water Polo Coach]

Their women play in the Western Water Polo Association, which—with three Eastern and five Western teams—is a fascinating mix of East and West.

Despite this success, last week Head Coach Sean Morphy stepped down to have more time with his family, will be watching from the stands, not the bench.

Swimming World reached out to Ed Reynolds, SOCAL Water Polo Club board member and youth coach, about the hiring of Shane Unger, who will relocate from one fertile polo environment (Socal) to another (Northwestern PA).

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Unger w/ Fullerton High School team. Photo Courtesy: Fullerton Indians

SOCAL Water Polo Foundation, Inc. is delighted that Shane Unger could parlay his experience here in the OC the last decade into the Gannon University Head Coaching position. 

Shane is one of several SOCAL coaches whose experiences springboard them to “better” things. Shane is an exceptional motivator, has a good understanding of fundamentals (especially shooting), and understands the west coast water polo terrain.  

The Gannon position will stretch Shane to a new coaching level especially with the numerous NCAA compliance matters and recruiting battles, but he has always wanted this level of responsibility. 

We are confident that Coach Shane can positively impact the outcomes of his Golden Knight student-athletes in the classroom and in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference.

Bora Dimitrov, named interim women’s head coach at St. Francis, Brooklyn

In another surprise move, Megan Husak, long-time head coach for the Terrier women, recently resigned. Stepping into her shoes is Dimitrov, who in two years leading the St. Francis men has a 15-5 record in Northeast Water Polo conference regular season play. Thanks to an 8-2 NWPC campaign in 2017, his first as a head coach, Dimitrov was named NWPC Coach of the Year. A former player (2014-15), the Serbian native hit all the right notes in a brief statement.

[New St. Francis Brooklyn Men’s Water Polo Coach Exudes Confidence]

I would like to thank Irma Garcia and the St. Francis College administration for this exciting opportunity. I’m very much looking forward to leading our women’s water polo program.

This is a tremendous group of hard working young women that have the talent and necessary work ethic to be a competitive team in the MAAC.

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Kelsey Snelgar Photo Courtesy: St. Francis Athletics

Quotes aside, Dimtrov will have to sprint to get his women ready for competition starting in January. Luckily, he’ll have Kelsey Snelgar back to lead his offense. Last year’s freshman sensation delivered 104 goals—the first Terrier in program history to break the century mark—and was named 2018 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year. That’s another SFC first for the New Zealander, who will have three more years to rewrite the Terrier record books.