Gauchos Make Early-season Case for Top Ranking

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A win over Cal a week ago was treated as something of an upset for UC Santa Barbara’s men’s water polo team, though the Bears are in rebuilding mode after graduating some key senior talent. Any doubts about the team from Goleta have been largely squashed after the Gauchos comfortably beat top-ranked USC at the Inland Empire Classic on Sunday. Not since 1990 have the Gauchos taken down a USC side. Their 9-0 start is tied for best in UCSB history.

Both UCLA and Stanford also remain undefeated after two weeks of the varsity men’s season. Ranked second and third in last week’s coaches poll the Cardinal and Bruins will try to fend off surging Santa Barbara both in the polls and in the pool. Stanford hosts the Gauchos on Friday. A UCSB win in what can be one of the sport’s most intimidating settings could signal a serious change in the varsity water polo pecking order.

Which is what fans have been clamoring for since the early days of the collegiate sport. It’s a well-tread story that the “Big Four,” Cal, Stanford, UCLA, and USC, have dominated since the first NCAA season in 1969. In 2013 the University of Pacific fell short of a championship by one goal in two overtimes against USC, disheartening fans who had been begging for a new face on the podium for the first time since Pepperdine earned the trophy in 1997. And so, hopes will likely rise that UCSB can challenge the traditional powers once November turns to December.

Head Coach Wolf Wigo appears to be publicly on board with that sentiment, saying  “[a]nything’s possible this season.”

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“No one else in the country has wins over top-four ranked teams right now. We didn’t squeak wins out either, we controlled both games throughout,” he told USCBGauchos.com after the team’s 15-4 rout of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. “The team has a lot of confidence.”

They will need it as they travel north to face Wigo’s alma mater in Palo Alto on Friday. That team features Cutino Award-winning and 2016 Olympian Ben Hallock and is on its own mission to earn a title nearly two decades after its last one. Double that number of years and you’ll find UCSB’s only NCAA title in 1979.

“Anything’s possible,” this season for the Gauchos, including an end that 40-year drought.