UCSB men’s water polo is like the Minnesota Twins – decidedly underappreciated and underrated – of Gaucho athletics, especially now that the program is on the rise.

After finishing in dead-last place last year in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, Santa Barbara has already improved and is just two games into conference play. Last weekend, the #9 Gauchos not only hung with the #4 Cardinal, but they led or were within one point for the majority of the game. That’s huge, especially if you think about how UCSB regularly lost by margins of five to the top conference teams last season. UCSB treated the boisterous crowd on hand at Campus Pool on Sunday to a thrilling match against Stanford, complete with gorgeous goals from seven different Gauchos, stunning saves from junior keeper Rick Wright, as well as hope for the good things still to come.

While I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for the Joe O’Brien administration of yesteryear, current UCSB Head Coach Wolf Wigo may be just the thing to turn the Gaucho men’s water polo team into a real competitor in the MPSF and hopefully NCAA water polo some day. No one is better qualified than the Wolf – a three-time Olympian, former captain of the U.S. national squad, member of three-time national champions Stanford; and he has starred in and helped produce multiple water polo instructional videos.

Wigo had a difficult first year as head coach at Santa Barbara. With the Gauchos being the laughingstock of the already ridiculous MPSF, UCSB finished the 2005 season at 13-17 overall and 0-8 in the MPSF.

Even though the shoddy stands at Campus Pool were completely filled last Sunday, men’s water polo lacks the recognition and supportive fan base that other UCSB sports have. If you look at rankings alone, then the Gauchos should be able to draw hundreds of fans. When men’s soccer was #1 in the country, everyone jumped on the soccer bandwagon. Granted, the water polo rankings do not mean nearly as much as soccer and basketball because there are far fewer polo squads, but Santa Barbara is #9 in the nation and it is sure to rise after defeating #8 St. Francis – and narrowly losing to #4 Stanford in double overtime. If men’s basketball were #9 in the country, how loud do you think the Thunderdome would be? Men’s water polo is ninth in the entire United States and does not even get support from the UCSB Athletics Marketing Dept. or half the fans that soccer gets. Despite the ridiculousness of the rankings, if the higher powers of water polo that be think the Gauchos are worthy of a #9 ranking, then it warrants a little more support.

Regardless of the rankings and how much they mean, few people actually understand how freaking entertaining men’s water polo actually is. Men’s polo is like soccer, but better and played underwater. It’s more aggressive than soccer, though it cannot be seen sometimes because a lot of it happens under the water. The good teams pass 10 times better than soccer and basketball, and especially good technique offers the audience a variety of different types of shots on goal, which happen quite frequently. With four eight-minute quarters, there is a never a dull moment in water polo, and overtime is more exciting than most other sports.

Water polo is also a West Coast sport, so we have the opportunity to see the best water polo in the country in our own backyard. If UCSB’s incredibly strong showing against Stanford on Sunday is any indication, then the Gauchos are headed for success this year and in the ones to come. They deserve our support.

Daily Nexus AP Editor Anna Oleson-Wheeler also really likes how the men’s water polo team handles their balls.