Aug. 28, 2007
After finishing third in the nation one year ago, the UCLA men's water polo team looks to win their ninth NCAA championship in program history and their first title since 2004. Led by ninth year head coach Adam Krikorian, the Bruins welcome back 14 letterwinners and two of their top three scorers from 2006.
A young team with a strong blend of veteran leadership and talented newcomers, the 2007 Bruins should contend for a national championship along with perennial powers USC, California and Stanford. Entering the season having earned the third slot in the MPSF preseason coaches' poll, UCLA welcomes the return of five seniors and three All-Americans.
Using a deep offensive attack, the Bruins will rely on several of their key goal scorers from last fall. A key contributor to UCLA's offense includes junior Krsto Sbutega, who scored 30 goals a year ago and 28 goals in 2005 as a freshman. Sbutega's 58 career goals are the most of any current Bruin.
"Krsto has gotten smarter and has improved physically," Krikorian said. "He's a very intelligent player who will be one of our key leaders." Sophomore Scott Davidson spent a portion of August playing for the U.S. Junior National Team at the World Junior Championships in Los Alamitios, Calif. Last season, Davidson scored 22 goals, tied for the fifth-highest total on the team.
"I think Scott has gained a lot of confidence after playing so well as a freshman and contributing with the U.S. Junior National Team this summer," Krikorian said. "He's a player who plays high in the water, has good vision, shoots the ball well and has a good sense of the game."
Seniors Matthew Jacobs and Cameron Smith each bring three years of experience to UCLA's offense, as each Bruin played on the 2004 NCAA Championship team. Over the last three seasons, Jacobs has played in all 80 matches, registering 47 goals, 41 steals and 23 assists.
"Those two returning players both have a wealth of experience and knowledge," Krikorian said. "They need to bring a sense of urgency to the table, knowing that this will be their final year."
"Those guys will factor into this year's team and will be constant threats, offensively," Krikorian said. "They're all unique in their own way and will do a great job for us."
UCLA hopes to replace the loss of defenders Michael March and Brad Greiner and will look for several talented youngsters to rise to the occasion. Junior Chris Allen has played in 21 matches over the past two seasons and has chipped in with nine goals and 10 steals. Junior Kyle Healy, who transferred to UCLA from Golden West College last summer, will see his first action as a Bruin after redshirting the 2006 season. Additionally, the Bruins look forward to redshirt freshman Jacob Murphy making his UCLA debut.
"Chris improved leaps and bounds from where he was one year ago, and I'm excited to see him get his opportunity this season," Krikorian said. "Physically, Kyle has the tools and he's going to continue to improve over the course of the year. The same goes for Jacob - he's tough and very willing to learn."
The versatility of senior Justin Johnson and the durability of senior Marco Santos will be a key to the Bruins' success in 2007. Johnson contributed 15 goals and 12 steals one year ago after having a breakout sophomore season (24 goals on 53 attempts). Santos finished the 2006 campaign with the third highest goal total (27) and has emerged as one of the most premier collegiate centers.
"Justin Johnson, along with Marco Santos, are probably the two most experienced guys on our team," Krikorian said. "Justin is a guy who is so versatile, and his role on this team will depend upon who we're playing or a given time in the game.
"Marco is tough to stop down low," Krikorian continued. "He's extremely strong and physical, plays with great composure and passion, and does a fantastic job of holding position down low. That's really the key to any team's offense."
Manning the cage behind Santos and Johnson will be returning starter and sophomore Chay Lapin and senior Matt Kellogg. Lapin, who was named an honorable mention All-American last fall, totaled 110 saves in 15 starts and emerged as the Bruins' starting goalkeeper midway through the season. Kellogg has seen limited action in three seasons and will challenge Lapin for playing time.
"Chay is going to be a very important key to our defense," Krikorian said. "He played great in the second half of last season and, as a part of the Junior National Team this summer, should come back with much more confidence. Matt is also an excellent goalkeeper and has done a fabulous job leading this team in the offseason."
Tabbed the number three team in the MPSF preseason coaches' poll, the Bruins look to battle defending NCAA champion California, USC and Stanford among others for the conference crown and national title. UCLA opens its regular season at Loyola Marymount on Sept. 6 and dives into its conference slate at Stanford on Sept. 29.
Aside from battling last year's top two teams - California and USC - the Bruins plan to have their hands full with Stanford, UC Irvine, Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara, the four teams that rounded out the top seven spots in the MPSF preseason coaches' poll.
"Those five teams, including ourselves, are very even and can beat anyone on any given day," Krikorian said. "UC Irvine is a national championship contender and Pepperdine returns strong with several of their talented players. Stanford is always very tough, and UC Santa Barbara has their whole team back from last year."