After an almost two-year layoff for many of its teams, starting this weekend the Western Water Polo Association will see all nine of its squads in action, including Biola University, which will field a men’s team for the very first time.
Besides the fact that members UC Davis, UC San Diego, Fresno Pacific and Concordia did not compete in last winter’s abbreviated league schedule—captured by Cal Lutheran—the WWPA has a new commissioner. Long time WWPA leader Steven Doten has departed to take a position as Cal Maritime’s Director of Athletics for Development and head men’s and women’s water polo coach.
Taking Doten’s place in leading the conference is Mitch Carty, who will again ascend to the top job in collection of men’s and women’s Division II water polo programs. Carty is no stranger to either the WWPA or polo; a two-sport star at Whittier College, where he spent a decade coaching his alma mater’s men’s team, from 1998 – 2002 he also served as the president of the conference.
Squads are presented in order as picked in a recent WWPA coaches preseason poll, which had UC Davis and UC San Diego each receiving 60 votes as favorites to capture the 2021 conference title. Before Cal Baptist won last year, the Aggies and the Tritons took turns representing the WWPA in the NCAA tournament, with UC Davis winning in 2016, 2017 and 2019, while UC San Diego won in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2018.
#9 (T) UC Davis (2019 record 16-8; 7-0 WWPA; 1st place in 2019 WWPA Championships)
Head coach Daniel Leyson (8th season) will bring in eight freshmen for his 2021 roster, including touted recruits Johnny Kujawa (Bellarmine College Prep), Tyler Loney (Campolindo HS); Gianna Nocetti (Rio Americano HS) and Adam Ting (Miramonte HS). This is in addition to nine sophomores who have yet to compete for the Aggies due to the UC system’s decision to suspend Fall 2020 sports as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nir Gross, Leyson’s most dynamic player (58 goals, team-high 61 points in 2019) returns for his senior year, as does Michael Plastino (9 goals, 12 assists, 13 assists). But, the other top scorers for the 2019 team have graduated; Leyson will have to rely on what looks to be a two years of strong recruits including sophomores Will Namora (Irvine HS), JT Kujawa (Bellarmine College Prep) and Aleix Aznar Beltran (Barcelona, Spain).
Duncan Creed is the only returning goalie from 2019; he did not play significant minutes and will be pushed by freshman Samuel Monette (Beckman HS).
Key Match-Up: UC San Diego—Saturday, November 6
#9 (T) UC San Diego (2019 record: 20-8; 6-1 WWPA; 2nd place in 2019 WWPA Championships)
Of the top five scorers for the Tritons in 2019, only one—senior Calder Hilde-Jones (43 goals, 5 assists)—returns for this season. Of the 28 players from Head Coach Denny Harper’s roster (42nd season) only 10 are back following the year-long pause for COVID-19.
The Tritons also return seniors Karlo Krmek (27 goals, 19 assists), Jack Ranj (16 goals, 12 assist, team-high 32 steals), and Alex Zamanian (10 goals and 6 assists). The freshman class is eight deep and includes Rhys Bugelli (La Jolla HS), Connor Macmitchell (Menlo HS), Collin Tournat (Mira Costa HS) and Trevor Moore (Steele Canyon HS) who was recently selected to the USA Men’s Junior National Team.
Key to UCSD’s success will likely be the sophomore class that skipped playing last year. Harper’s two most experienced goalies are Bennett Kienast and Alexander Nemeth, part of a quartet of goalies and two of six red-shirt sophomores on the Tritons’ roster, a relatively untested group that may prove pivotal.
Key Match-Up: Cal Baptist—Friday, October 15
#14 (T) Cal Baptist (2021 record: 7-5; 0-2 WWPA; 1st in 2020 WWPA Championships)
Earlier this year the Lancers enjoyed an historic first: their first-ever trip to the NCAA men’s water polo tournament. There was much to celebrate beyond getting there; Cal Baptist gave mighty UCLA a tough game, at one point closing within 10-6 early in the third period.
It’s a memory that Lancer Head Coach Kevin Rosa (6th season) will likely cherish; even though his team was picked third for the WWPA regular season standings it will be a tall order for CBU to leapfrog UCSD and UCD for another NCAA berth.
Rosa will bring back 18 players from last spring WWPA-winning squad. Of those returnees, Zach Lowery (23 goals, 24 assists; 27 steals, team-high 47 points) and PJ McDonough (team-high 36 goals) will come back as graduate students; sophomores Matt Olsen (33 exclusions drawn) and Cameron Cullen (9 goals, 17 assists, 10 steals) also return.
Goalie Gabe Thorne (115 saves, 11.23 GAA in 10 starts) has graduated; Tristan Felberg, a 6-5 junior, will compete against three other goals, including freshman Jonathan Rosenberg, for the starting nod in Lancer nets. Marcus Lodewyk (Valley Christian HS) is one of seven freshmen on the roster; another is Simon Taylor, who competed for South Africa in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Key Match-Up: Air Force—Saturday, November 6
#16 Loyola Marymount University (2020 record: 4-7; 1-1 WWPA)
John Loughran, now in his 24th seasons with LMU, is as experienced a coach as there is in collegiate water polo. His roster reflects his understanding that having options in a season such as this one is essential to winning. He has stockpiled 33 athletes on his roster for this season—an astounding number when you consider that typically 14 – 15 players actually compete in any given match.
Robert Halligan is arguably the most critical of those 33; a graduate student, Halligan started eight of the Lions’ 11 games in the abbreviated 2021 spring season. He is the most experienced LMU athlete, having started as a red-shirt freshman in Los Angeles back in 2017. Other key returners from the team that finished second in the conference last March: sophomore Jonny Rimlinger (25 goals; tied for team lead); junior Joseph Cavazos (21 goals) and red-shirt senior Daniel Roth (16 goals, 10 assists). Alexandros Athymaritis (48 goals in 2019), who sat out the 2021 spring session because of COVID-19 fears, returns as a graduate student.
Jeffrey Muller (JSerra Catholic HS), Kai Scarlet (Mira Costa HS) and Ryan Lichlyter (Liberty HS, Brentwood) are a few of the 15 freshmen that Loughran has recruited for this season—added to the seven sophomores who saw limited playing time for the Lions—LMU can field an all-inexperienced team that is deeper than first-year Biola University.
Key Match-Up: UC San Diego, Wednesday, September 22
Air Force (2020 record: 4-7; 2-0 WWPA; 2nd in 2020 WWPA Championships)
Unlike many of its WWPA rivals, Air Force was able to compete in the shortened 2021 spring season and was rewarded with its first trip to the WWPA finals since the Falcons won in 2012. Ryan Brown, now in his fourth season in Colorado Springs as head coach, likely has hopes for a team that will return five of its top seven scorers from earlier this year.
Senior Grant Snyder (team highs with 33 goals and 50 points) returns, as do both goalies who saw playing time in the spring: senior Anthony Tolbert (5 games started, 48 saves; 13.76 GAA) and junior A.J. Kuypers (6 games started, 63 saves; 14.88 GAA). Seniors Sam Fuller (17 goals) and Corey Tanis (10 goals) also come back; 17 of the players who lost to Cal Baptist in the WWPA final return for another crack at a title.
Conner Halverson (Thousand Oaks HS), a noteworthy recruit, committed to play for the Falcons in 2023— AFTER he completes a two-year mission for the Church of the Later Day Saints. Other newcomers of the eight who made the grade for the Air Force include Sage Brady (Cabrillo HS) and Dave Brown (Mater Dei HS).
Key Match-Up: United States Naval Academy, Thursday, September 23
Santa Clara (2020 record: 1-2)
The Broncos 2021 line-up is curious mix of experienced players and relative newcomers. There are eight seniors on Keith Wilbur’s (19th season) roster but only one, goalie Sean Tehaney, has played significant minutes in his career at Santa Clara.
The same is partially true of the five juniors on Wilbur’s current squad. Chase Zamborelli (13 games started, 164 saves in 2019) has significant time in the Broncos cage. Dominick Kirk (20 goals, 30 assists, 22 steals) and Ford Eldredge (18 goals, 11 assists) are the leading scores returning from 2019. Fellow juniors Caedmon Fischer and Nicky Fontes have a combined total of six games in their careers—all as reserves.
Tehaney and Zamborelli will vie with red-shirt senior Snapper Gullick (8 appearances in four years) for playing time in the Broncos net. The rest will likely be up to Eldredge, Kirk and ten sophomores and two freshmen that make up half of the Broncos’ roster.
Notable underclassmen include: sophomores Billy Barry (St. Ignatius College Prep) and Matt Sommers (Cathedral Catholic) as well as freshmen Zach Fales (The Bishop’s School) and Gavin Fisher (Costa Mesa HS).
Key Match-Up: Biola—Friday, September 24
Concordia (2019 record: 9-18; 3-4 WWPA; 6th in 2019 WWPA Championships).
Only one of Head Coach Dreason Barry’s roster of 18 have ever played for the Eagles. Senior Christian Bowley suited up in Concordia’s green and yellow in 2019; Barry has brought in five transfers, including goalie Tanner Powell from La Salle. The Explores ended their men’s water polo program last spring.
Seniors Austin Wade and Jeff Runyan are from Sierra College and Merced College respectively. Junior Shaine Sargis transferred from Ottawa while junior Harry Nixon moved from San Jose State.
Gone is Austin Barton who graduated in 2020; he was a second team WWPA selection in 2019. With eight freshmen and four sophomore and the transfers, it’s almost as if the Eagles were a brand new squad.
Key Match-Up: Santa Clara—Friday, October 29
Fresno Pacific (2019 record: 7-23; 0-7 WWPA; 8th in WWPA Championships).
Fresno Pacific is looking for its first conference regular season win since a 12-9 victory over Concordia in 2016—a span of 25 matches. With a brand new program in the WWPA, it seems realistic to believe that the Sunbirds will break this streak this season.
Luckily, none of the current roster has any memory of this futility.
Head Coach Bryan Suhovy (15th season) who is the only coach the FPU men’s and women’s water polo programs has ever none, has recruited ten freshmen—two thirds of the Sunbirds’ 2021 roster. Only senior Drew Parsley (five assists in 2019), junior Clay Maroney and sophomores William Green (8 goals, 10 assists in 2019) and Steven Chapman have donned the Sunbirds orange and blue.
With six appearances in 2019 and 64 minutes of playing time, Maroney (22 saves in five appearances) has the inside track (barely) for starting. Sophomore Ethan Mclaughlin is an option for Suhovy.
Key Match-Up: Biola—Saturday, September 25
Biola (new program).
For a roster of 19 athletes, Head Coach Rick Nordell—in his first season with the first-time Eagles—has two juniors four sophomores and 13 freshmen—to be expected in a program about to launch its inaugural season. Matthew Vinson is a transfer from Modesto Junior College where in 2019 he was the team’s MVP. The other junior is Jonas Huckabay, a swimmer with no collegiate polo experience. The four sophomores, only Dominic Hidalgo-Valecillo, James Osborn, Maxwell Osborn (no relation) and Kenny Wulf have experience in the rough and tumble world of California community college polo.
Mitchell Carpenter may be key to the Eagles’ fortunes in La Mirada; the 6-6 goalie from Yucaipa High School has four years to hone his craft. Nordell’s other goalie is Casey Cazanjian who at 5-10 is a full head shorter than his teammate.
The Eagles probably could not have picked a better season to launch their men’s program. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on rosters, and possible wins abound for the first year program, including matches against Ottawa and Westcliff, NAIA programs, McKendree, a DII program, and WWPA rivals Concordia and Fresno Pacific.
Key Match-Up: Westcliff—Saturday, September 4