When the University of California system chose to go remote for the entire 2020-21 academic year, the Golden Coast Conference was effectively sidelined for the fall 2020 season. GCC members Pepperdine and San Jose State did compete in an abbreviated 2020 season which ran earlier this year from January to March. Pepperdine finished 11-3 while San Jose State was 3-6 in limited play.
Now comes the real season; with four teams in the Top-Ten of the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s preseason poll—Pepperdine at #5, UC Santa Barbara at #6, Pacific at #7 and Long Beach State at #8—this should be a banner year for the GCC. Also ranked by the CWPA are conference members San Jose State (#12) and UC Irvine (#13).
Multiple GCC teams will contend for a national championship—though the conference’s automatic berth assures only one of qualifying for the 2021 NCAA men’s tournament. There is hope for more. In 2019, for the first time in the conference’s brief (six year history), two teams—Pepperdine, the 2019 conference winner and Pacific—qualified for NCAAs. The Tigers were an at-large selection, one that was justified by advancing to the 2019 title match, which they also hosted.
UC Santa Barbara was picked first in the GCC coaches preseason poll, while Pepperdine was the conference’s highest ranked team in the 2021 CWPA men’s preseason poll. Pacific has won three of the past four titles and is capable of winning it again. Long Beach State, with head coach Gavin Arroyo cleared from his responsibilities (for the moment) with the U.S. men’s national team, are also a contender for a GCC title.
San Jose State will hope to continue building a contender —a process begun when the program was reinstated in 2015 after a four-decade absence. The Anteaters of UCI will look to rebound from back-to-back losing seasons, including a 7-16 mark in 2019.
#6 UC Santa Barbara (2019 record: 21-7; 3-2 GCC; 3rd place 2019 GCC Championship)
On September 25, 2019, by ascending to the top spot in the national polls, the result of a season-opening 16-match win streak, UC Santa Barbara accomplished something no GCC team ever had. The mantle as the nation’s best team had not been worn by any men’s polo team outside the Pac-12 since Pepperdine, NCAA champs in 1997.
The rest of the water polo world took notice of UCSB’s early success—one of the most electrifying development in recent collegiate water polo memory.[Notes from a Memorable Start to the 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Season]
That the Gauchos were quickly knocked off the top perch and were unsuccessful in qualifying for the program’s first NCAA tournament since 1990 only makes their return to the water this fall that much more tantalizing.
For Head Coach Wolf Wigo (15th season) the pandemic could continue a much-needed reshuffling of teams at the top of the water polo order. This season he has 41 athletes on his roster—including 18 freshman—likely the deepest in all of U.S college water polo.
Backed by junior Danny Roland, arguably the best collegiate goalie in the game (though USC’s Nic Porter might beg to differ) the Gauchos can no longer expect to catch the Bears, Bruins, Trojans or the Cardinal by surprise.
What they can do is ride seniors Leo Yuno (33 goals, 23 assists) and Cole Brosnan (55 goals, 16 assists) and juniors Sam Nagle (41 goals) and Cole’s brother Ryan (21 goals, 10 assists, 14 steals). Combine this with an extraordinary 25 lower classmen (those 17 freshmen plus eight sophomores) and the potential for UCSB to be No. 1 at season’s end is real indeed.
Key Match-Up: UCLA—Saturday, September 18
#8 Long Beach State (2019 record: 18-13; 2-3 GCC; 2nd place 2019 GCC Championship)
Returning for the 49ers are a pair juniors who should have big impact in 2021: Rafael Real Vergara (49 goals 15 assists, 15 steals—first-team All-GCC in 2019) and Garrett Zaan (39 goals, 13 assists, 27 steals). Add in sophomores Liam Ward, Zach Frazier and Evan Cain, all of whom were named to the USA Men’s Junior National Team that competed in the 2021 FINA Men’s Junior World Championship and junior goalie Andrej Bosanac (13 appearances, 82 saves, 9.42 GAA in 2019) and there’s lots of talents on the LBSU roster.
After his responsibilities with the U.S. men’s national team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 49ers’ Head Coach Gavin Arroyo (15th season) is back for another season—and he has help. Bret Lathrope—one of the best young coaching minds in the sport—has signed on as Arroyo’s top assistant. Also on staff: Rade Joksimovic, who was last seen at the 2019 NCAA men’s tournament leading Bucknell into California for the first time in four decades.
LBSU newcomers include nine freshmen, Notable are: Connor Mannion (Los Osos HS), Zach Frazier (Oaks Christian HS) and 6-7 goalie Brennis Lidecis (Orange Lutheran HS).
Key Match-Up: UC Santa Barbara—Saturday, October 9
#5 Pepperdine (2020 record: 11-3)
With a roster of 27—and rumors (debunked by Roger Horne, Pepperdine Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications) that Harvard’s super scorer Dennis Blyashov is bound for Malibu—Head Coach Terry Schroeder (29th year) has a tremendous amount of talent to work with. Raw and finished; with five freshmen and seven sophomores, Schroeder and Merrill Moses, his top assistant, already have a strong foundation for future GCC championships. Three of those sophomores— Christian Hosea, Travis Reynolds and Nico Tierney (24 goals, 14 assists, 38 points in 2020 abbreviated season)—are among the best at their age in the entire country. They were named to the USA Men’s Junior National Team that competed at the 2021 FINA Men’s Junior World Championship.
Add in eight seniors—including Balazs Kosa (2019 GCC leader with 93 goals, 47 assists and 140 points—2019 ALL-GCC First Team), Sean Ferrari (30 goals, 27 assists) and goalie John Claude Marco (12 games started, 95 saves, 10.61 GAA and All-GCC honorable mention in 2019). If he falters, Marco will be challenged by Spencer Tybur, a junior college transfer (Golden West College), junior Kent Emden and red-shirt freshman Justin Edward.
Noteworthy returnees are juniors Xavier Marco (7 goals in 2019)—John Claude’s brother—Austin Smit (15 goals) and Coleman Carpenter (14 goals).
All will be hard pressed to account for 245 goals scored in 2019—more than half the program total of 435—lost to graduation in 2020 and 2021.
Key Match-Up: Pacific—Saturday, October 23
#7 University of Pacific (2019 record: 17-6; 5-0 GCC; 2019 NCAA runner up)
The Tigers last competitive match was the 2019 Men’s National Championship Final—a 13-8 loss to Stanford. It’s been almost two years since that lopsided lost—more than enough time for Pacific Head Coach James Graham to analyze and evaluate what went wrong for his team—and how to get back to the NCAA final.
Whatever does occur this season, it will happen without Luke Pavillard, the Tigers’ brilliant lefty who enjoyed a Hall of Fame-worthy career in Stockton. But that doesn’t mean the crafty Graham hasn’t figured out how to replace Pavillard and his wingman Engin Ege Colak—who also graduated in 2020.
First, many players return from the 2019 NCAA runner ups. Juniors Djordje Stanic (34 goals, 34 assists in 2019), Jeremie Cote (50 goals, 28 assists in 2019) and Matthew Hosmer (36 goals, 12 assist in 2019) will be back in 2021.
Key to the Tigers’ fortunes will be whomever claims the position as top netminder. Red-shirt sophomore Jon Barry (20 games started, 167 saves, 10.89 GAA) may have the inside track, but he’s not Graham’s only option in the cage. Junior John Hedges returns to Stockton after pursuing a shot with the Australian Olympic squad. That experience has got to have made him better.
Graham brought in nine freshmen, fully one-third of his roster of 31. Notable newcomers are: Mihailo Vukazic (Secondary Graphic School, Serbia); Reuel D’Souza (Archbishop Carney Regional Secondary School, Canada) and Nathaniel Eidsness (Campbell Collegiate, Saskatchewan, Canada). D’Souza, Cote and junior Bogdan Djerkovic (20 goals in 2019) are teammates on the Canadian national team.
Hype may surround other teams in the GCC, but the results have been with Pacific since the conference was launched in 2015: 26-3 in GCC regular season place with a title in 2017.
Key Match-Up: USC—Saturday, October 2
#12 San Jose State (2020 record: 3-6)
San Jose State took advantage of the abbreviated 2021 session, playing five of their nine matches against Pepperdine. It was a good warm-up for GCC play, especially for senior goalie Yahav Fire (27 games started, 273 saves—tops in the GCC). The San Jose State’s all-time leader in save percentage will be backed up by junior Noah Pendleton and three freshman: Zoltan Der, Willem Simon and Jamie Stiengraf.
The Spartans will need more than stellar goaltending to contend in the GCC. Providing offensive help will likely be seniors Neil Arnett (19 goals, 14 assists in 2019) and Niels Hofmeijer (31 goals and 15 steals in 2019) as well as juniors Adam Bado (31 goals, 12 assists) and Nick Marchione (9 goals).
Head Coach Bruce Watson (sixth season) knows that defense wins titles; with 240 goals scored in 27 matches in 2019 (9 goals a game) his goalies will have to improve on the 288 goals allowed if they are to move up in the conference rankings. He’s brought in 10 freshmen—including the three goalies—to tip the balance, including three from Hungary, where defense is prized: Bende Pardi, Laszlo Szieben and Bence Szabo.
Key Match-Up: UC Santa Barbara—Saturday, November 6
#13 UC Irvine (2019 record: 7-16; 0-5 GCC)
Looking at the Anteaters 2021 roster, it’s clear that Head Coach Marc Hunt (17th year) has gone all in for a youth movement. 16 players on the roster of 30 are freshmen—and another seven are sophomore. Meaning that three-fourth of Bell’s players have never competed for UCI.
Of course it’s a calculated risk. The Anteaters have not made NCAAs since 1993, and the move to the GCC has yielded exactly one finals appearance, a 9-5 loss to Pacific in 2017.
So, perhaps change is good at the moment.
There are returning players from the Anteaters’ last season of play. Sophomore Harrison Land (16 appearances, 139 saves GCC All-Freshman Team honors in 2019). Senior Casey Lynton (26 goals, 21 assists, 31 steals) and juniors Zlatan Nikocevic (18 goals, 9 assists) and Ivan Mercep (13 goals) will provide some pop.
Notable freshmen include William Oliver (Coronado HS), Tyler Padua (Huntington Beach HS) and Thomas Cass (Greenwich HS).
They are members of waves of inexperienced players who will suit up this season for the Anteaters. The silver lining is that the last time UCI hosted the GCC championships was 2017—when they advanced to the finals.
Key Match-Up: San Jose State—Saturday, October 23