Breaking Down The National Championship
Nov. 30, 2009
By Trevor Freeman
Special To NCAA.com
The conference tournaments are officially behind us and they were a delicious appetizer. This past weekend’s MPSF tournament was particularly delectable as we saw a young UCLA team take down top-ranked USC while third-ranked California pulled the mild upset over second-ranked Stanford. Those two victories gave us a surprise MPSF Final and NCAA Final Four entrant in UCLA. USC was given the at-large bid later that night which meant that every invitation to the ball has now been sent. The greatest weekend of the year in American water polo is upon us and it is brimming with quality. Below is our breakdown of the four participants in this year’s Final Four which begins next Saturday at Princeton.
No. 1 USC vs. No. 14 Princeton
USC has the best talent and most depth of the four remaining teams. They boast a dominant halfcourt game which is spearheaded by 2008 United States Olympian J.W. Krumpholz. Krumpholz is one of the ten best two-meters on the planet and cannot be guarded one on one. What makes USC especially dangerous is they have National team caliber firepower surrounding him as Matt Sagehorn and Shea Buckner both competed for Team USA in this past summer’s World University Games. Sagehorn is an outstanding perimeter shooter and counterattack player. Shea Buckner can also set two-meters for the Trojans and is integral in USC’s halfcourt offense. Justin Rappel often gets lost in the shuffle when discussing USC’s incredible firepower; however the lefty is one of the best perimeter shooters in the country. Kyle Sterling, Peter Kurzeka, Jordan Thompson, Matt Burton and Anthony Artukovich are also quality players for the Trojans.
Mark Zalewski and Douglas Wigley were both first-team All-CWPA Southern Division performers and they key the Princeton offense. Zalewski is a sweet-shooting lefty who led the Tigers with fifty-four goals. He is a threat to score anytime he is fouled outside of five-meters and is the player that USC will have to mark most closely. Wigley is a utility player who scored thirty-three goals and drew twenty-two ejections for the Tigers. Keep an eye on Eric Vreeland as he is one of those players that can do a little bit of everything as indicated by a stat line that includes twenty-one goals, twenty-eight assists, twenty-three steals and twenty-eight ejections drawn.
Joel Dennerley is one of the top goalies at the collegiate level and he anchors USC’s defense. The Australian National team player was integral in helping the Trojans hold the opposition to under five goals a game. For Princeton, Mike Merlone is an intelligent, steady hand in the net. The junior from Atherton, CA had an outstanding Eastern Championship tournament as his twenty-three saves were important in leading Princeton to this moment.
Having had the chance to play at multiple Ivy League venues, I can state from experience that these schools generally get a strong student turnout for regular season games. For a Final Four contest, that pool will be packed to the rafters with Princeton supporters. There’s also no bigger advantage than being able to sleep in your own bed the night before a big game.
They say that the hardest thing to do in sports is to repeat as champion. I think USC relishes this opportunity and that their loss to UCLA last weekend at MPSFs will refocus them for the task at hand. This is the best team in the country and they have a senior class that has shown the ability to perform when it matters. Expect them to be great this weekend.
No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 7 Loyola Marymount
UCLA hauled in the top recruiting class in the country and many felt that this was a team that would be a heavy 2010 national title contender. However, the Bruins arrived a year early to the dance and are looking formidable after an outstanding MPSF campaign. UCLA’s freshmen receive the majority of the hype and they have had an impact. Josh Samuels and Griffin White have been as good as advertised and are among UCLA’s leading scorers. However, UCLA’s best offensive player has been senior Scott Davidson. Davidson is an outstanding perimeter shooter who really opens up the pool for UCLA. Keep an eye on Ben Hohl, Cole Consani and Cullen Hennessy as well as all three of those players are emerging stars. UCLA is the best counterattacking team in the field and they will want to turn this game into a swim meet.
Andrew Aki, Edgaras Asajavicius and Tibor Forai were All-WWPA performers and are the headliners of the Lions attack. Aki was a first-team All-WWPA selection this season and is an outstanding two-way player. He was among LMU’s leaders in goals, assists, steals and set a school record in field blocks this season. Asajavicius is a creative player and outstanding perimeter shooter. Forai missed six games earlier this season and has quietly been rounding back into form. He is a two-time All-American who has the ability to dominate on the offensive end.
This matchup is water polo’s version of Colt McCoy versus Tim Tebow. In Chay Lapin and Andy Stevens, you have not only two of the best three goalies at the NCAA level but two of the best five in America.
This past weekend, Chay Lapin broke the UCLA career saves record which was previously held by two-time Olympian Brandon Brooks. Not only did Lapin break that record but he did it while leading the way in UCLA’s stunning upset of USC. Chay Lapin was the hot goalie prospect in the country prior to the 2008 Olympics. He trained with the United States National team in 2008 and was one of the final cuts off of the Olympic team. Lapin followed that up with an Honorable Mention All-American performance during the 2008 college season and then offseason hip surgery. Entering this season, people wondered whether he would get back to being that player that just missed making the Olympic team. He’s answered those doubters by leading this young UCLA team to its first Final Four since 2004.
On the other side of pool stands Andy Stevens. Quite simply, he has a knack for being exceptional when the lights are brightest. Last year, Stevens submitted one of the great games a goalie has ever played in an NCAA Final Four. While his team was defeated 6-5 by Stanford, it was no fault of Stevens as he blocked fourteen shots including a five-meter penalty from Drac Wigo with two minutes left that rates as one of the most clutch saves I have ever seen. He has extensive United States National team experience as he traveled with them during the spring and summer of 2009 and suited up for Team USA in the World University Games.
The biggest intangible heading into this game is the Final Four experience Loyola Marymount arrives with. Andy Stevens, Tibor Forai and Edgaras Asajavicius were three of LMU’s leading players in last season’s run. On the flip side, UCLA has not made a Final Four since 2004. Many of their key players are freshmen and one has to wonder how this team will respond to the magnitude of this contest.