Aug. 17, 2006
Looking to win its ninth national championship in program history, the UCLA men's water polo team enters the 2006 season with a strong combination of veteran leadership and experience. After having lost two seniors to graduation, the 2006 squad returns 12 players from each of its last two seasons - including the 2004 NCAA championship team.
The Bruins welcome back four of their top five goal scorers from last season - seniors Logan Powell and Grant Zider, junior Justin Johnson and sophomore Krsto Sbutega. Over 76 percent of UCLA's offensive output (goals scored) from 2005 returns to action this year. More importantly, UCLA returns seven seniors and six juniors who add to the team's depth.
"The great thing about this team is that we have seven seniors back, and they're going to bring leadership and experience," head coach Adam Krikorian said. "They're really going to set the tone for how we want to approach every single day."
In addition, seniors Michael March and Brad Greiner return to the pool this fall after having missed the 2005 season. As a junior in 2004, March recorded 26 goals on 55 attempts and tallied 18 assists and 25 steals. In his first two seasons at UCLA, Greiner played in 42 matches and scored eight goals on 23 attempts.
Two veteran players - March and sophomore Pat Morrison - underwent surgery in the offseason and look to regain their dominant form. Avoiding injuries will prove vital to the Bruins' success.
"One of the keys for us will be to stay healthy," Krikorian said. "Those two guys coming off of surgery are talented players who can help this team very much. March is a very talented player. He's got a tremendous amount of skill, and keeping him healthy is going to be first and foremost for us."
Senior goalkeeper Will Didinger posted an impressive junior campaign, his first full season as the Bruins' starting goalkeeper. Didinger recorded a 5.92 goals against average and 191 saves in 101 quarters played. This season, Didinger will continue to be challenged by junior Matt Kellogg and freshman Chay Lapin. Kellogg played in five matches last year, starting three, and posted a 2.96 goals against average in 15 quarters. Lapin redshirted in 2005 and could see playing time in 2006.
"The goalie situation will be very competitive throughout the year," Krikorian said. "Will Didinger had an excellent year in the goal last year; however, this season he is going to be pushed by the two goalies behind him - Matt Kellogg and Chay Lapin."
Left-handed attackers March and Powell, along with Sbutega, who scored 28 goals as a freshman last season, should provide plenty of the team's offensive fireworks in 2006. Both March and Powell were pivotal members of UCLA's 2004 national championship season and will be looked upon to lead the Bruins back to the NCAA tournament this year.
"March and Powell are two very experienced, composed players who are going to help us in every aspect of the game," Krikorian said. "Krsto improved tremendously over the course of last season, and he took that momentum into the offseason. He's deadly from anywhere in the pool, and we're really looking for him to have a big year."
UCLA will also rely on Zider and junior Marco Santos to combine for a strong 1-2 combination at the center position. Zider nearly doubled his career goal total in 2005. After having scored 30 goals in his first two seasons combined, the senior center registered 25 goals last season.
"Grant Zider was very inspirational for us last year," Krikorian said. "He had a breakout season and we look for him to do a lot of what he did last year. He's great at holding down the middle for us."
Johnson and junior Matt Jacobs contributed significantly in 2005, and the Bruins expect more of the same this year. Jacobs played in all 29 games (starting 14), and Johnson played in 27 matches.
"Justin and Matt will be playing pivotal roles for us," Krikorian said. "These guys are long, tall, athletic defenders with good speed."
UCLA starts its regular-season slate at home against Cal Baptist on Thursday, Sept. 14. The Bruins will appear in the NorCal Tournament that weekend and participate in the SoCal Tournament one month later (Oct. 14-15).
The following Saturday, the Bruins begin a six-game road stretch which includes crosstown-rival USC (Oct. 21), Loyola Marymount (Oct. 28) and conference-foes California (Nov. 4), Pacific (Nov. 5), Pepperdine (Nov. 11) and UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 12).
"We play in the toughest conference, and every game that we play is going to be tough," Krikorian said. "Cal, USC and Stanford have finished in the top four for quite some time, and they will always be our biggest competition. Pepperdine and Pacific are improved since last year.
"Some of our non-conference opponents such as UC San Diego and Loyola Marymount are very talented teams that can beat you on any given day. UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State are up-and-coming teams with new, young coaches that are going to do good jobs with their water polo programs."