The season is still less than two weeks old, but this year’s UCSB men’s water polo team is off to one of its best starts in program history. With four games this weekend, including games against No. 6 Pepperdine and No. 1 Stanford, the Gauchos have a chance to stake a claim on the best start outright.
A 9-0 start to the season and wins over then-No. 4 Cal and then-No. 1 USC have propelled UCSB into a tie for the No. 2 ranking with UCLA. It’s the first time the Gauchos have been ranked No. 2 since October 2012, and the 9-0 mark is tied for the best record to start the season since 1988.
The Gauchos will get their chance to break the record on Thursday afternoon, when they host Ottawa University – Arizona. The Ottawa squad is 1-7 so far this year, including a 16-5 loss to the University of Redlands. UCSB crushed Redlands 18-4 this past Saturday, providing an indication of how Thursday’s match might go.
Ottawa gets much of its scoring from freshman utility Shaine Sargis, who tallied four goals and four assists in their most recent match. Zackery Whiddon serves as the team’s 6’6” freshman goalkeeper and has had an up-and-down go of it so far this season.
The Arizona branch of Ottawa University opened in 2017 as an offshoot of the main campus in Ottawa, Kansas. As a result, the Spirit team is quite young: all but four of the team’s players are freshmen.
Those freshmen, and their four elder counterparts, will be facing a tall task on Thursday. The trick for UCSB will be to avoid seeing the game as a simple warm up to the main event, a 5 p.m. game that same day against Pepperdine.
One of the Gauchos’ foremost rivals, the Waves are 8-1 on the season. UCSB provided the one blemish with an 11-5 victory over Pepperdine at the Triton Invitational. Pepperdine has bounced back, however, taking down No. 9 Long Beach State, No. 11 UC San Diego, No. 14 Loyola Marymount and No. 19 California Baptist since then.
Sophomore attacker Balazs Kosa has provided the main force behind the Waves’ attack with a team-leading 25 goals and 15 assists. The Gauchos held Kosa scoreless in the first meeting, but Kosa put on a show last weekend at the Inland Empire Classic, scoring eight goals in three games on Sunday alone.
If UCSB is able to silence Kosa again, or at least muffle him, the Gauchos stand a good chance of a repeat verdict and another powerful statement in early season Golden Coast Conference play.
Another win over Pepperdine would be one more strong point on UCSB’s growing resume, but the real opportunity comes Friday, when the Gauchos travel to Palo Alto to take on Stanford, the number one team in the nation.
The Cardinal are 5-0 so far this year with wins over two ranked teams: No. 12 Princeton and No. 18 San Jose State. No team has finished within 10 points of Stanford so far.
Stanford has two 2018 first-team All-Americans, redshirt junior two-meter Ben Hallock and senior driver Bennett Williams, returning to this year’s team; both have excelled so far this season. The goalkeeper position is a bit more tumultuous, with third-team All-American Oliver Lewis now graduated, but the Cardinal have rotated between senior Andrew Chun and sophomore George Hagestad so far to solid results.
UCSB will look to take advantage of the turnover in goal to become the first team not only to crack the 10-point firewall, but to pull off the upset. The Gauchos last defeated Stanford in 2016, but the team has broken longer losing streaks already this season.
The Gauchos cap off their weekend with a rematch against Fresno Pacific at Campus Pool on Saturday. The two teams met last Saturday at the Inland Empire Classic, where UCSB trounced Fresno 25-5.
With just a week between the two matches, it’s unlikely that this Saturday’s result will be much different. The Gauchos maintained a consistent and scorching barrage on the Sunbirds’ goal the first time around, scoring seven times in the first quarter and nine times in the fourth. Fans should expect more of the same at Campus Pool this weekend.
It’s a proper gauntlet run of a week for the Gauchos, complete with a warm up and a cooldown. Should the team make it through unscathed, or at least unembarrassed, they’ll have made history and continued perhaps the hottest start in program history.
A version of this story appeared on p. 6 of the Sept. 19, 2019, edition of the Daily Nexus.