Sept. 3, 2008
Backed by the return of an experienced group of perimeter players and veteran All-America goalkeeper Chay Lapin, the UCLA men's water polo team expects to compete for the program's ninth NCAA championship and its first since 2004. Led by 10th-year head coach Adam Krikorian, UCLA welcomes back 13 letterwinners and its top two scorers from 2007.
The Bruins find themselves in a position where most of the team's key players are upperclassmen, bringing leadership, confidence and experience to the pool. UCLA enters its 2008 campaign ranked fourth, nationally, behind national championship competitors California, USC and Stanford, respectively.
Just three members of UCLA's 2004 NCAA championship squad remain in the program - seniors Chris Allen, Krsto Sbutega and Russell Simpkins, all of whom redshirted in the fall of 2004. A common desire to win the program's first NCAA title in four years has motivated the team throughout the offseason.
"This team is hungry, seeing as how we have come up a little bit short the last couple of years," Krikorian said. "Every time you come up short, it only adds to that hunger. I think that this team is going to be very motivated to do well."
Two reasons for optimism lie in the return of UCLA's top two scorers from 2007 - junior Scott Davidson and Sbutega. Davidson registered a team-best 49 goals as a sophomore one year ago, and Sbutega followed with 35 goals. Both individuals will be looked upon as offensive weapons and team leaders.
"Krsto is an excellent perimeter player, both as a passer and shooter," Krikorian said. "He will have to take on the leadership. He's certainly one of our most talented and intelligent players.
"Scott is coming off an incredible sophomore year," Krikorian continued. "Even as our team's leading scorer, I think he was a very underrated player. He's a guy who was not highly-touted out of high school, but he has committed himself to becoming one of the country's best attackers."
Juniors Scott Swanson and Tyler Jemmett both played major roles in 2007, scoring 18 and 20 goals, respectively. One of the team's fastest swimmers, Swanson has played in 47 matches the past two seasons. Jemmett has seen action in 35 contests in two years, scoring clutch goals in key games last fall - including two versus Stanford, one against California and one versus USC.
"Scott will be a huge threat for us on counter-attacks," Krikorian said. "His anticipation, awareness, speed and quickness will make him very effective in those situations. Tyler is a great outside shooter who is a tremendous asset, particularly in 6-on-5 opportunities."
Sophomore Ben Hohl proved to be one of the program's most productive additions in 2007, playing in all 28 matches (27 starts) as a true freshman. The left-handed utility player from Atherton, Calif., scored 27 goals, the fifth-highest total on the squad. Hohl looks to become a prominent player in UCLA's gameplan this fall.
"Ben was certainly one of the best freshmen in the country last season," Krikorian said. "Having one year under his belt will help him this year. When you've got guys like Krsto Sbutega and Scott Davidson who can create space to get open, it's great to have a left-hander like Ben on the right side of the pool setting things up and delivering the ball to people."
Defensively, UCLA will rely on Allen and Simpkins, two fifth-year seniors who were a part of the Bruins' last NCAA title in 2004. Both defenders played in all 28 matches one year ago, as Allen worked his way into the starting lineup (26 starts).
"Chris is one of the toughest guys in the country," Krikorian said. "He's a very unselfish player and will execute his role perfectly. Russell is a guy who is a great representative of the passion and intensity that this team needs on a consistent basis. In that sense, he's become an incredible leader for this team. Both players have been here for four years and that experience will help them lead our defense."
UCLA must replace the void left at the center position by Marco Santos and Justin Johnson, two seniors in 2007 who were the team's third and fourth-most prolific scorers. Rather than relying on one player at two meters, the Bruins may move to a four-man rotation, featuring junior Cole Consani, sophomore Jacob Murphy and redshirt freshmen Brett Hays and Matt Preciado. The Bruins' relative inexperience at the center position proves to be the team's largest question mark.
"Not one of those guys has gotten significant playing time," Krikorian said. "Between all four of them, we are hoping we can be just as effective as when Marco and Justin shared duties. They all have worked extremely hard in the offseason and there is no question we are very happy with their progress."
The Bruins' last line of defense may also prove to be the team's defensive backbone - junior goalkeeper Chay Lapin. The Long Beach, Calif., resident earned honorable mention All-America accolades in 2006 and second-team All-America honors in 2007 and carries a 6.05 goals against average in 36 career games. Lapin had the opportunity to train with the U.S. National Team in the spring and summer of 2008, as Team USA prepared for the Olympic Games in Beijing.
"Chay had an incredible offseason playing with the U.S. National Team," Krikorian said. "Those experiences helped his confidence and really forced him to be more consistent on a daily basis. Chay has become an elite athlete. His development over the last eight months has been really fun to watch." Other players expected to compete for playing time in the cage include junior Alex Lawrence and redshirt freshman Andrew Mesesan. Lawrence appeared in two games as a sophomore last fall.
The Bruins will also look for contributions from their six redshirt freshmen - Mesesan, Hays, Preciado, Cullen Hennessy, Tyler Smith and Nick Zakula. Hennessy, who arrived at UCLA one year ago from Sir Francis Drake High School (Fairfax, Calif.), has impressed his teammates and coaches with his speed and tenacity.
"Cullen is an experienced player who has no fear. His work ethic is unmatched and his toughness is superb," Krikorian said. "He's probably the fastest player on our team."
UCLA welcomes Clint Jorth, the younger brother of sophomore Clay Jorth, to the 2008 squad. Clay had a strong freshman season in 2007, scoring 18 goals on 39 attempts and adding six assists. Clint, a true freshman who played with Clay at Newport Harbor High School as recently as 2005, will compete for playing time this spring.
"It's going to be great to see Clinton and Clay play together," Krikorian said. "They have an incredible bond, beyond just being brothers, and you can really see that when they play together. They feed off each other and know each other very well. Because of that, I think it will help our team and translate to success in the pool."
Another difficult regular-season schedule awaits UCLA, who opens its 2008 campaign on the road with a non-conference match at UC Irvine (Sept. 13). The Bruins will play in both the NorCal and SoCal Tournaments in the first month of the season before entering the bulk of their MPSF slate. UCLA plays five of eight conference contests on the road, including games at California (Oct. 25), Pacific (Oct. 26), USC (Nov. 1), UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 15) and Pepperdine (Nov. 22).
The Bruins host four matches at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, in what will be the team's final season using that home facility (Spieker Aquatic Center slated for completion in summer 2009). UCLA also hosts Long Beach State (Oct. 4) and Stanford (Oct. 18) in MPSF contests at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center.
"Looking at our schedule, this team will have to be tough," Krikorian said. "We play somewhat of an unbalanced schedule, with five conference road games and three conference home games. Our road games will be tremendous challenges. This team will have to be very strong, both physically and mentally, to be successful on the road."