Aug. 29, 2011
The UCLA men's water polo team kicks off its season on Saturday, Sept. 3, hosting the one-day UCLA Invitational at Spieker Aquatics Center. Head coach Adam Wright enters his third year at the helm of the UCLA men's water polo program. Over the last two seasons, UCLA has secured one MPSF Tournament championship, advanced to the NCAA Tournament's title match and finished second at two major in-season tournaments (NorCal, SoCal in 2010). UCLA's head coach answers 12 questions as the Bruins embark on their 2011 campaign.
Q: In your third season as UCLA's head coach, how have the last two seasons helped you grow as a head coach and prepare for this season?
A: I feel like that first year, I was really trying to play catch-up on the college game. I was gone from the U.S. for a significant period of time and had not seen college water polo for a while. Just the basics of knowing players who we were going to be playing against and of what teams do, I had a lot of stuff to catch up on, and a lot of work went into that. To have been around it for two years now, that has given me the ability not only to know players from other teams, but also to get to know other team's tendencies and opposing player's tendencies.
As far as preparation for games, it makes it a little easier when you know a team's tendencies and what they are looking to do. As far as our team, it takes time to know your own kids. It takes time to know what kind of group evolves. We've had two years of really hard training. We have an excellent group. It takes time to create a culture. It takes time to implement things that you want to do. We have a good base. After a couple years of doing this, we've established a solid foundation where we can begin to do some different things.
The most important thing is to have a foundation, before you can start going out there and going outside of that to try new things. We have everybody on the same page. We have new players, of course, and you have to add them in. The group has a really good understanding of the basic things we're trying to do.
Q: What are the greatest reasons you believe this team can compete for an NCAA championship?
A: It's our hope every year to have the belief that you can play for an NCAA title. The last two seasons have been a growing process. Two years ago, we lost in the NCAA finals by one goal with an inexperienced team. We did have some seniors on that team, but those seniors had never really been to something like that. We had a lot of young underclassmen on that team. We won the conference tournament that year, and those younger players got a lot of good experience. Nothing can replicate playing in championship-level games.
Last season, everybody was disappointed. Certainly, the hopes go up when you have a result like we did in 2009, getting to that championship game. But last year we did do some good things, and we hit some good markers. We played in a couple of tournament finals last year, which are excellent for the group but also for the younger kids who are trying to make the transition to the college game. A lot of these guys have at least two years under their belt in high-level games, matches we have not been able to close. That's what we have been working on hard for the last seven or eight months, in making that next little step to get over the hump and really win those final games. We have been able to get to the final, but not really close it out.
The most important thing is that this group believes they can get it done. It's not easy. A lot of things go into it - luck goes into it. But, they've grown a lot, matured a lot, and put in a lot of work. We've also brought in a few new pieces that we've needed. I really believe that it's going to complement the group that's already here. We still have a lot of work to do. We're still the underdog. We're chasing USC and Cal. But I think that this group is very motivated and excited to begin the season and play those teams.
Q: Who do you expect to step up as this season's most dynamic scoring threats?
A: You need to have a balanced scoring attack. On every team there is going to be that guy who can put the team on his shoulders when you're not having a great day and help the team get to a victory, or for the team to at least be in the game. We have a wide variety of players here, and I really believe we have a lot of good shooters.
You're going to see a more mature Josh Samuels this year trying to take initiative instead of waiting. That comes with experience, and I really believe that. Cullen Hennessy is a guy who will be a fifth-year senior, but always, since I've been here, he has found a way to come up with goals. Whether it's off movement, counter attacks, 6-on-5s, he always manages to get good goals. Griffin White is another one who we expect a lot from. His freshman year, he really heated up down the stretch and into the conference tournament, coming up with some huge goals. I really believe he's been inserting himself in the game the right way. He's going to find the back of the net a lot.
Cristiano Mirarchi was a freshman last season, and it takes time for foreign kids to understand that the game is different over here. He had an excellent offseason. He's an excellent shooter. Two of our returning centers should help, with Brett Hays and Aimone Barabino. Aimone can also play outside. Paul Reynolds, a true freshman coming in from Foothill High School, is extremely fast. I think he will find a lot of goals on the counter-attack.
The list goes on and on. But it would be my hope that in those crucial moments, when maybe we are having a hard time scoring the ball, you are going to see some of these guys step up.
Q: Talk about this team's capabilities on defense.
A: This is always the first concern, the defense. We brought in Luka Bokavsek from West Valley Junior College. He's a two-meter man, but he is going to have to defend. He has shown in training that he can do it. He's a big body with strong legs. He will have to help fill that role, with Emilio Vieira having departed. Another guy I haven't mentioned is Chris Wendt. Last year as a redshirt freshman, he started over half of our games as the two-meter guard. He had a ton of experience last year, and we look for him to also help fill that hole. There's also Brett Hays, who can play both ways, as can Lucas Reynolds. We have Josh Samuels who is a guard with the U.S. Junior National Team, and Cristiano Mirarchi who has been a guard with the Italian Junior National Team. We may have to mix guys around, but for the most part, we'll have a pretty solid core of guards.
A: Looking at our options at two-meters, I believe that Brett Hays, a fifth-year senior, is going to have an excellent season. Since I have been here, he has put in a ton of extra work. It's starting to pay off. He's extremely motivated. These guys were very close to winning the NCAA Tournament two years ago and did not get what they wanted. Sophomore Aimone Barabino is another player who was adjusting to the American college game as a true freshman last year. He's played as a two-meter man for the Italian Junior National Team. He's another guy who should have an excellent season.
Lucas Reynolds will be a redshirt sophomore. He's a big kid, and I really believe he could become a significant contributor. He had an excellent summer, and he could be an X-factor for our team. We're looking forward to seeing what Lucas can do. The other player who will be asked to play guard, as well as two-meters at some point, will be Luka Bokavsek. Of course you're always going to miss the players like Jacob and Emilio, but I'm confident that we have guys who can fill those holes.
Q: Among the biggest losses from last season's squad was four-year veteran and left-hander Ben Hohl. What's the advantage of having a left-handed scoring threat in water polo, and which players might be able to follow in Ben's footsteps?
A: It's always nice to have a talented lefty. Ben brought so many things to our team that people didn't even see. For example, on our 6-on-5s, we were able to run certain plays because teams were forced to knock him down. So having a left-hander like Ben was a definite luxury.
This year, we do have a couple other left-handers. A guy who you will hear of a lot from, not just this year but also down the road, is Daniel Lenhart. He's one of the most athletic players who I've seen in a long time. Another lefty who we will see is redshirt freshman Christopher Meinhold. Alex Fortis is a true freshman, a left-hander from Loyola High School, who is an excellent shooter.
But, when Ben wasn't in the game last season, we had to play with a righty at that position. There are a lot of guys who can play at that position, and aren't necessarily left-handed. Alex Wherry, who has been playing with the U.S. Junior National Team, can play over there. Having that lefty there is good, but I think our righties can do a good job at that position.
Q: What do you enjoy most about Cullen Hennessy's game?
A: Cullen is a guy who not only does things well physically, but he can also communicate. He gets it done when training. He's the hardest working guy who will always go for it 100 percent. He may not be the biggest or most talented guy, but that hard work has paid off. In my first year as head coach, he scored a goal at the last second in the NorCal Tournament semifinal against USC. He always finds a way, and that's due to his fantastic work ethic.
He's our captain, and I believe that he will be a great leader for this team. I know that he is not satisfied, and it has really hurt him the last several years to come up short. But he's going to have this group motivated. He will be super motivated both in the water and out of the water. I really believe that he's the right person to lead this group.
Q: What's the goalkeeper situation?
A: James Hartshorne was our goalie last year, and right now, we've got four good goalies. Right now, James is ahead. He's the returning starter. He's been excellent in his preseason preparation and has been working very hard. But, we're really waiting to see one of them just grab the reins and really take it. We go through after each practice and talk about how each one of them did. One of them is a better passer. Another is better at communicating. One is better at blocking skips. The competition is very close. The door is open. The nice thing is that we do have guys with experience.
James got a ton of experience last season, having to jump in during the middle of the season. But you also look at Andrew Mesesan, a guy who is returning for his fifth year to be a part of this. He got a lot of experience, too, last season. The question with Matt Rapacz, we'll see. He's coming off an injury. Knock on wood, but he's been good so far. Again, it's open. And Stephen White is a redshirt freshman who has shown excellent poise in there. They all played equal amounts over the summer. This will be the most difficult decision going forward.
Q: How impressed were you with James Hartshorne's performance as a true freshman in 2010, and is there any chance you may redshirt him in 2011?
A: Well, he was in the top three at the end of last season in the MPSF in goals against average. There were certain points, late in the year, where he was the top guy. You're talking about a true freshman who didn't think he was going to play, and then all of a sudden, you've got an injury and he waited until we got back from the NorCal Tournament, and then he ended up playing. That's a lot to ask of a guy.
He gave us a shot in every game. There were games where he had incredible moments, keeping us in the game, and that's a lot to ask of a true freshman. The nice luxury that we do have, and we talked about it last year when I decided to bring him out of his redshirt, is that he always has the opportunity to use a redshirt. If something was to come up, we do have that luxury.
On the flip side, we have a kid who now has one year of experience under his belt, too. He's in a good situation. I really believe that he helped us tremendously last year, and we were in a situation that was difficult. Andrew Mesesan did great, too. We decided to go with James, and he gave us a great chance at the end of the day.
A: I really believe, hands-down, that I have the best assistant in the country with Daniel Leyson. I feel like we are lucky to have him. Not only his knowledge of the game, but also the way in which he looks at things - whether it's coming up with certain drills to simulate action in a game, but also his ability to relate to our players in a different form from the head coach. A lot of the time, they're hearing things from the head coach in a strong manner. For an assistant coach to be able to bring that all together in a way they can really grasp, it is special.
Kids here immediately had a great deal of respect for him, just looking at his résumé alone - looking at what he has done as a player and who he has coached with. One of the biggest things for me is his knowledge of the age-group kids, and the kids that he believes will help UCLA. Lastly, his work with the goalies has been fantastic. He was doing the same thing for the Olympic team. His drills are very innovative, and I really believe that they wanted him to be the U.S. National Team's goalie coach again. Fortunately, he decided to come here. As far as goalkeepers go, not only do we have the best goalkeeper coach in the country, but also somebody with a great deal of knowledge of the game, aside from goalkeeping.
With Steve Gill, he's been working with our club team over the summer for three years. Last year was his first season working with our team as a volunteer coach in the fall. He played in Europe for a long period of time. He played for the best club team in Jug Dubrovnik [Croatia] for one year. He played with the U.S. National Team for a long time, but the one thing we're fortunate to have with Steve is that he's a two-meter man. Not many teams have a guy who is still in pretty good shape and is passionate about his position. He can come in a couple times each week and work with our centers one-on-one, not in a group atmosphere. It's great individual work in the water, and that's very unique. For a guy to be volunteering his time because he cares about the kids, that says a lot, not only about his passion for the sport but also for his connection to this group.
Q: How deep a conference is the MPSF in 2011?
A: Since I played at UCLA, it's probably one of the deepest fields I've seen. Now, you've got USC and Cal and Stanford at the top. But Pacific has become a serious player. We've had common training with them. At the U.S. Open over the summer, they beat some of the top teams. James [Graham] up there has done a great job. They've got a fantastic two-meter player and great outside shooters. They shouldn't be a surprise to anybody. They're a legitimate team.
I think that Long Beach State will be much better this year. They've got a couple years under their belt with guys who they started playing with as true freshmen. We've got a tough game going down there on a Thursday night. They will be a team that competes to get in the conference tournament. They missed it last year, but I think they'll be in there this season.
Pepperdine is always tough. They've added a couple quality players, from what I've heard. They've always been a dangerous team. UC Santa Barbara had an excellent recruiting class, and they will be playing with some younger guys. Fortunately, we'll be playing them at home. It's certainly an open field. I think that USC and Cal are ahead of everybody else, but with Stanford and our team and Pacific, it's very stiff competition. The results will show that this year. I think there will be some interesting results because a lot of these teams are getting a lot better.
Q: While it's still three months away, the MPSF Tournament will be hosted on UCLA's campus for the first time ever. How excited are you and your players to compete in the tournament at home?
A: I really wanted to have it here, and I'm glad and grateful that UCLA was willing to host this year's tournament. We've received great feedback on our new facility, especially after having hosted the SoCal Tournament last October. It needed to be in southern California this year, and other schools have asked me if UCLA would host it.
First and foremost, it's a fantastic opportunity for us to showcase our new pool. That's always a plus, especially when you've got kids who might be looking to attend our school. It's great to be able to show what UCLA has to offer. From a water polo standpoint, I think everybody would like to play at home. To be able to play where you always practice, hopefully in front of a pro-UCLA crowd, is an opportunity that you don't get to have very often.
The MPSF Tournament gives you a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament. Every little advantage helps. I really believe that being able to play at home in a surrounding that you're used to, and having some sort of home court advantage whether that's the crowd or what not, it puts your team in a better position. As soon as I found out that we were hosting, I let our team know. And our players are very excited to play in this tournament at home. I really believe that it's going to be a great tournament. It will be an excellent three days of water polo. We're going to put on a great tournament. In and out of the water, it's a major positive for the men's water polo program here at UCLA.