August 31, 2007

2007 Season Preview: A Team On The Rise

Aug. 31, 2007

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - It certainly is not the norm in college athletics for the top-seven teams in a sport to all compete in the same conference. It is also not the norm that all 38 NCAA titles in that same sport would also belong to teams in a single conference, but that is something that makes college water polo unique and at times, very exciting.

In the Collegiate Water Polo Association Preseason Top-20 poll, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation had seven teams ranked in the top-seven with UC Santa Barbara rounding out the group in the seventh slot. It is probably no coincidence that those seven teams are the only teams that have ever won a national championship since the tournament's inception in 1969 and it is likely that those seven teams will each be making their run at the title this season. UC Santa Barbara plans on being in the mix.

Head coach Wolf Wigo began his career with the Gauchos in 2005. The team ended that season with an overall record of 13-17 with a 0-8 league record and a 14th place national ranking. The season was thought of as a rebuilding year and was proven to be when last season's squad posted its best record since 1990 and best national ranking and conference record since 1994. The 2006 Gauchos posted a 21-14 overall record, finished fifth in the conference regular season with a 3-5 record, took a fifth place finish at the MPSF Tournament and ranked sixth in the final CWPA Coaches Poll.

The 2007 Gauchos will attempt to build upon last season's success and are not afraid to admit that they have their eyes on the main prize: their first NCAA title since 1979. Some may see that goal as ambitious for a team currently ranked seventh nationally and in the MPSF Preseason Poll, but Wigo has a different view.

"This year we have the talent," Wigo began. "If things go right, the team is gelling and we progress throughout the season, we are capable of that (winning the NCAA Championship), where that wasn't true the last two years. We were improving and we gave some teams a good game, but we weren't really in contention. This year we are."

"We got picked seventh in the preseason poll, so we are by no means a favorite or no one else probably thinks we are in contention, but I truly believe we are. That's our goal. We are playing every single game to win this year and we will see what happens."

Luckily for Wigo and the Gauchos, there was not a single senior on last year's roster and nine of their top-ten scorers from 2006 return. Third Team All-American Ross Sinclair, who led the team in goals, assists and steals, tops the list of returners. With four seniors on the team and several juniors, the 2007 Gauchos now have the wisdom and experience that last year's team lacked.

"When you don't have any seniors on the team, everyone has a feeling that there is no urgency and we'll be better next year," Wigo explained. "Now we have some guys that are facing the end of their collegiate careers and they have to give everything and hopefully pull up the rest of the team."

In 2007, UCSB will rely on a balanced team that has plenty of depth at every position.

Goalkeepers
The Gauchos' depth begins in the cage where two talented returning players and an internationally experienced newcomer will combine to help run the defense. Senior Rick Wright returns for his last season with UCSB after an impressive junior campaign that culminated in All-MPSF Honorable Mention honors. The 6'2" native of San Diego, Calif. led all Gauchos last season with an average of 11.1 saves per game and a save percentage of .551.

"Rick is coming off of a great season last year. He will start the season as the starting goalie and it is his position to lose or hold," said Wigo.

Freshman Fraser Bunn of Melbourne, Australia joins the Gauchos this season and brings a wealth of international experience including time spent representing Australia on the Under 20's World Championship team.

Rounding out the "three horse race" in between the posts is sophomore Michael Robinson who averaged 7.0 saves per game last season with a .453 save percentage.

Two-Meters
The Gauchos have a trio of strong two-meter players ready to man the center in 2007. Matt Dale, a fifth year senior will likely get the starting nod for most of the games. The Orcutt, Calif. native was fifth on the team with 28 goals last season and led the Gauchos with 46 earned penalties and ejections.

"(Dale) has a good combination of speed and strength and a lot of experience," Wigo commented.

Jesse Tootell also returns this season after posting 13 goals and drawing 29 ejections and penalties in his redshirt freshman season.

"Jesse is the big guy, he is like the tank: no one is bigger than him. Strength is his asset and if no one is helping, it is going to be hard for teams to defend him."

Rounding out the two-meter staff is junior Ratko Paunovic, who in his first season with the Gauchos was able to draw 25 ejections and penalties.

"Ratko is our most versatile two-meter player. He has a strong presence at two-meters, but he is also effective as a guard or out on the perimeter."

Two-Meter Defense
The job of defending center will be up to Michael Machado, Kendell Olds or Brian Bishop. Machado, a junior out of San Jose, Calif., tallied eight goals and 19 assists for the Gauchos in 2006.

"Mike isn't the biggest guy, but he has a lot of fight in him. He is quick and strong. We use him a lot of times on bigger, slower holemen where he can use his quickness to agitate them and get around them."

Olds had a solid freshman campaign starting several games for UCSB. The 6'6" sophomore was tenth on the team with 10 goals and collected 14 assists. Olds' size is an asset, especially when guarding smaller two-meter players.

Rounding out the Gaucho defenders is redshirt freshman Brian Bishop. A graduate of Mountain View High School, Bishop was a two-time All-Santa Clara Valley Athletic League selection and a 2005 All-CCS Honorable Mention.

"Brian is a really long player with a lot of potential and we want to get him a lot of experience this year. Down the road we look for him to be a key player for us," Wigo said.

Utility
Junior Mark Knudtsen returns for his junior campaign. The Los Altos, Calif. native scored 16 goals for UCSB in 2006 and also tallied 19 assists.

"Mark is a strong, fast player. He is dangerous as a defender, coming in on a double post as a secondary holeman and as a driver."

Sophomore Zsombor Vincze also returns after an excellent freshman campaign, which earned him All-MPSF Honorable Mention honors. The native of Szeged, Hungary was fourth on the team last season with 30 goals and he also collected 23 assists and 20 steals along with 30 earned ejections and penalties.

"Zsombor played great for us last year and we expect great things from him. He's got all the talent. He is fast, he's strong and he shoots the ball hard," Wigo said.

Perhaps one of the most anticipated incoming freshman is Milos Golic, hailing from Belgrade, Serbia.

"Milos, in my opinion, is the best recruit in the country. He has impressed us tremendously in the preseason training and we are all extremely excited to have him on our team."

Drivers
Headlining a group of very talented drivers for the Gauchos is the aforementioned Ross Sinclair, who led UCSB in practically every statistical category last season.

"Ross is our marquee player this year," Wigo said. "He doesn't necessarily have the strongest shot or the best speed, but his game sense is amazing. He makes a lot of things happen out of thin air that you just wouldn't expect. He is a tough match-up for teams because he does a lot of things that they aren't used to seeing. Very few players have those skills."

Junior Travis Watts posted 39 goals and 35 assists for UCSB last season while also collecting 17 steals. His great shooting is an asset in special situations like time-out plays and is described by Wigo as a "smart player with great ball skills."

Another player returning for his last season in the blue and gold is Coulson Lantz who was the Gauchos' leading scorer in 2005 and contributed 25 goals, 14 assists and 19 steals last season. A versatile player, Lantz is also a very effective option on the UCSB six-on-five.

Junior Miles Price was the number two scorer for UCSB last season with 40 goals on the year. He is anticipated to continue to contribute greatly to the Gaucho offense.

"Miles is definitely one of our most talented players. He has amazing speed and amazing shooting. He could be one of the top players in the country if he works hard and continues to improve; he is on the right track."

Juniors Daniel Natalizio and Dane Lindstrom will provide further depth on the perimeter. The two will likely compete for time on the right side of the pool. Natalizio returns to the team after missing the 2006 campaign and will use his speed to fill the role of one of the team's key counter attackers. Lindstrom has seen a lot of playing time in the last two seasons and tallied 25 assists in 2006, good for third amongst the team.

Stefan Partelow, who scored 18 goals and posted an impressive .514 shooting percentage in 2006, returns for his sophomore season. A very strong, fast, physical player, Partelow will be looked to improve upon his successful freshman season.

Rounding out the list of returners is sophomore Sean Castillo who started several games as a freshman. The San Diego, Calif. native was solid scoring 10 goals while tallying 13 assists and 12 steals.

"Sean is a smart player who has great legs and a great game sense. We just want him to keep improving and he could be a marquee player for us in a year or two," said Wigo.

The Schedule
UCSB opens its season this weekend at the UC San Diego Triton Invitational with games against No. 17 Air Force, Pomona-Pitzer and host No. 8 UC San Diego. The Gauchos will play in six regular season tournaments including the competitive Northern California and Southern California Tournaments.

The Gauchos will open the MPSF season with a game versus No. 5 UC Irvine on Sept. 30, their first of only four home matches in 2007. The final home game will be versus No. 2 Cal on Nov. 4. This season's conference tournament will be hosted by Cal and take place the weekend of Nov. 23-25.

Despite being part of the nation's toughest conference, Wigo has confidence that the Gauchos have what it takes to rise to the top.

"There will be a lot of tough games," Wigo said. "I don't mind being seeded seventh because there is no pressure on us. We are as good as any of those teams. Any time we play them and they don't come ready to play us, we are going to beat them and if they do come ready to play us, we might be at them anyway."

The biggest challenge for the Gauchos may actually be matching their coaches' confidence and believing that they can match-up and beat those teams that have historically dominated college water polo.

"The biggest obstacle is getting these guys to believe that we are as good as we are. When we play a team that has a really strong tradition like UCLA, Cal, USC or Stanford, those teams have a mental edge, because they expect to beat us. And for us that is hard to change. These guys know that we should be beating these teams this year, but that is sort of hard to get out of people's minds sometimes, so that is our biggest challenge this year."

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