Most intercollegiate sports teams contain a few freshmen, and maybe one or two play a large role on the team, but that is not the case for the UCSB men’s water polo team, which contains several freshmen — 11 to be exact — and they’re making a big splash.
“We [may] make some freshman mistakes, but they’re playing above expectation,” Head Coach Wolf Wigo said. “The hard work is paying off so far.”
Yet, this young team (12-6 overall, 0-1 MPSF) with no seniors is ranked No. 5 in the nation and fell just short of defeating No. 1 Stanford in their conference opener.
“Our freshman and team in general are really focused, tenacious and want to prove the talent we have on this team,” junior attacker Jesse Gillespie said. “This is a big learning year for us, but we’re going to try to win every game.”
The freshmen aren’t sitting on the sidelines watching and learning, either. In fact, three of the seven starters for the Gauchos are freshmen: Eric Van de Mortel, Chase Racich and Derek Shoemaker.
Attacker Van de Mortel has gained momentum in the last few matches. In two of their last three matches, he led the attack for Santa Barbara, tallying a hat trick against UC Irvine to secure fifth place in the SoCal Tournament and two of the team’s five goals against the Cardinal.
“Van de Mortel’s shots have been blowing me away the last few games,” Gillespie said. “He’s very quick and a big offensive threat.”
Another key freshman is utility Racich, who’s tied for second in goals scored on the squad and is the leading freshman scorer. He’s led the team in scoring on three separate occasions, including in the last game against UCSD. However, Racich is better known on the team for his speed.
“Chase is really fast,” junior goalkeeper Myles Christian said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lose a sprint. It’s nice to have a guy that’ll get up on the counterattacks and chase down other players.”
Attacker Derek Shoemaker may have learned his way from his older brother, junior utility Brian Shoemaker. Ranked fourth on the team in goals scored with 16, Shoemaker’s strengths aren’t always ones that show up on the stat sheet.
“Derek’s a smart player, works hard and knows the game really well,” Christian said. “He can play a lot of different positions, but he’s also a very talented shooter.”
So why are there so many freshmen this year?
“It was an unusually big recruiting class and guys who usually wouldn’t make the team beat out the other guys,” Wigo said.
The other reason is based on redshirting, which isn’t uncommon in water polo.
“Water polo is a physical sport and a lot of freshmen come in undeveloped,” Wigo said. “An extra year as a freshman puts in an extra 20 pounds and [the players] can be a lot more developed before play first year.”
With such a young team, the most important key to success has been gaining experience.
“They haven’t played in many games, so they haven’t seen every situation,” sophomore 2-meter defender Scott Bishop said. “There are so many situations they have to be comfortable in.”
For this reason, the preseason was vital in getting the team ready for its rigorous conference schedule.
“Preseason was tremendously crucial,” Gillespie said. “Every minute of play for every player added experience. We really progressed as a team and individually way quicker than most people expected.”
UCSB’s preseason schedule was no walk in the park, either. They played against several top 10 teams, including UCLA, UC Irvine and Pacific.
“Our coach definitely made our preseason a lot harder than last year because we have a lot of freshmen,” Bishop said. “If they’re not in top shape and playing well, we’re in trouble.”
The Gauchos have found that a young team means a fresh start. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a rebuilding year.
“It affects us positively in that we basically have a brand new team and get to start over for the most part,” Gillespie said. “The first couple weeks were all about experience, but after that the improvement has been tremendous.”
While Santa Barbara believes they can go far into postseason this year, they know the program’s future is bright for years to come.
“Our players are going to get bigger, stronger, faster and smarter,” Christian said. “We’ll be able to start playing with these top-ranked teams and get some upsets.”
The Gaucho freshmen, along with the rest of the squad, will enter the pool next on Saturday at Long Beach State, before returning home to face USC on Sunday.