Young, Scrappy and Hungry: American Men To be Tested in FINA World Water Polo Championships

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Matt Farmer—shown scoring during UCLA's win in the 2017 NCAA tournament—may be an inspiration to his teammates. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The U.S. men’s national water polo team that opens play this Monday at the 18th FINA World Aquatics Championships will be significantly different than the one that finished a program worst 13th two years ago. Absent from the squad now in Gwangju, South Korea are goalie McQuin Baron, center defender Alex Roelse and lefty attacker Thomas Dunston. They have been replaced by Alex Wolf, captain Jesse Smith—playing in his sixth world championships—and Matt Farmer, a one-time UCLA standout who is an unexpected addition to Team USA Head Coach Dejan Udovicic’s roster.

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By any measure, Farmer’s is an inspirational story. An unheralded center out of Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois, he found his way to UCLA and impressed Bruin head coach Adam Wright enough that he played on three NCAA title-winners. Not content with his college accomplishments, Farmer sought professional opportunities—first in Australia then in Italy—before earning a spot on Team USA’s roster. For those who value the sport, and appreciate the prestige of representing their country in international play, Farmer’s achievement is nothing short of remarkable.

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This is not to say that Farmer (6-3) or Chancellor Ramirez (6-2), his one-time Bruin teammate also on the Worlds roster, will fill the gap in the U.S. attack often manned by a bigger hole set. That role will be filled by Big Ben Hallock, who at 6-6 represents a very large scoring option in the middle of the pool. The 21 year old will be counted on to compliment outside sharp-shooting; how much he is able to frustrate teams inside—the role of John Mann (6-6; 259 lbs.), the burly center who manned the U.S. pivot in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics—will be key for U.S. hopes.

But Farmer and Ramirez will be responsible for defensive match-ups against the massive centers typically employed by Croatia (Josip Vrlic is 6-6), Serbia (Dusko Pijetlovic—also 6-6) and others. Given new FINA rule changes designed to reward driving while penalizing physical play—a staple of the dominant Croatian and Serbian squads of the past decade—bulk at center may be a moot point.

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US Head Coach Dejan Udovicic talks to Ben Stevenson, with Alex Bowen, Dylan Woodhead and Matt Farmer. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Despite the significant absences—when Baron split time with Merrill Moses in the 2016 Rio Games it was assumed he would lead his team to at least one more Olympics—continuity is clear in Udovicic’s selections. Nine members of Udovicic’s 13-player roster are veterans of the 2017 World Championships in Budapest: Hallock, Ramirez, Alex Bowen, Luca Cupido, Drew Holland, Johnny Hooper, Max Irving, Alex Obert and Marko Vavic. Newcomers include Farmer, goalie Wolf and budding star Hannes Daube. The 36-year-old Smith, who missed the last Worlds, will captain an American squad which—with an average age of 24—is sure to be among the tournament’s youngest.

What the Americans lack in experience, they ideally will compensate for in raw ability. Daube is considered one of the best young players in the sport, Vavic has enjoyed success in previous international play, and Cupido, Hallock and Irving have proven they can compete with top international players. Bowen, Obert and Smith have extensive experience with Team USA, and there’s a sentiment among the team—voiced recently by Bowen—that the Americans may open eyes in Gwangju.

Let’s not get too cocky here!

Potential is one thing; actual results may prove elusive for Udovicic and his squad. Their opening match against Kazakhstan will immediately demonstrate if this year’s team can improve on the debacle of two years ago. After finishing eleventh in 2017, the Kazakhstani picked Dejan Stanojevic—a former assistant to the Serbian National team who spent five years coaching Romania—as their head coach. This change likely means the Americans’ opener will not be easy, through their talent should see them to victory.

A match against defending champions Croatia—which the U.S. shocked last year in group play at the 2018 World League Super Final—will be an early measure of just how fit Udovicic’s squad is. On July 19 the Americans and Australians—two familiar rivals—will finish out Group B play; this is another stiff test but is a winnable match against a quality opponent. Two wins in group play would be a fantastic outcome, but if the U.S. repeats its performance from 2017—when Japan tagged them with a 15-7 loss and Croatia beat them 12-7—it will likely make the trip to Lima, Peru for the Pan American Games that much longer. The reality is Pan Ams is the more important tournament; it’s the best chance the Americans have to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The rest of the pack

Group B may be the tournament’s most competitive group, but Group D is the most noteworthy. Italy, Japan, Germany and Brazil will spar over five days, with the Italians the group favorites. But the Germans are the tournament’s most compelling story, making their first appearance at a world championship since 2013. The Japanese will continue to hone their skills for a medal run at the Olympics they’ll host next year, while the Brazilians have a challenge similar to the Americans; make a strong showing at Worlds but qualify for Tokyo at Pan Ams.

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Probably NOT what German polo fans will wear in GwangJu. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

The Serbians, still the sport’s most dominant team despite stumbling against arch-rival Croatia at 2017 worlds, are in Group A. which includes Greece, Montenegro and host South Korea. The final men’s group includes Spain and Hungary—both contenders for medals—and New Zealand and South Africa, who decidedly are not.

Beach water polo will be part of this year’s FINA Aquatics World Championships, with Argentina, Canada, China and France sending men’s teams; on the women’s side, Australia, China and New Zealand will play a series of round-robin matches, with a final to be held on July 19.

The story of Matt Farmer and his young American teammates will ideally prove inspirational over the next week of competition—let’s hope that’s not the only highlight for the U.S. men at FINA Worlds.

USA Men’s National Team 2019 FINA World Championship Roster
1. Alex Wolf (Huntington Beach, CA/UCLA/Bruin)
2. Johnny Hooper (Los Angeles, CA/California/LA Premier)
3. Marko Vavic (Rancho Palos Verdes, CA/USC/Trojan)
4. Alex Obert (Loomis, CA/Pacific/NYAC)
5. Ben Hallock (Westlake Village, CA/Stanford/LA Premier)
6. Luca Cupido (Santa Margherita, Italy/California/Olympic Club)
7. Hannes Daube (Long Beach, CA/USC/North Irvine WPC)
8. Matt Farmer (La Grange, IL/UCLA/Windy City WP)
9. Alex Bowen (Santee, CA/Stanford/NYAC)
10. Chancellor Ramirez (Pasadena, CA/UCLA/NYAC)
11. Jesse Smith (Coronado, CA/Pepperdine/NYAC)
12. Max Irving (Long Beach, CA/UCLA/NYAC)
13. Drew Holland (Orinda, CA/Stanford/Olympic Club)