After a wild season of overtime thrillers and stunning upsets, the #7 UCSB men’s water polo team will punctuate the regular season with conference matches against #2 UCLA and #5 Pepperdine this weekend at Campus Pool. The Gauchos (15-8 overall, 4-2 in conference), look to keep their pristine 8-0 home record unblemished following a monstrous upset of #2 Stanford last Sunday.
“Stanford killed both of these teams, so it’s definitely possible [to win],” said Head Coach Wolf Wigo. “That said, we’re still the underdog, both of these teams are ranked ahead of us and most people betting would bet on them. But with our pool, our momentum, and the feeling of the team right now, we have a great chance.”
Santa Barbara begins the weekend on Saturday against a Bruin squad (14-5, 4-2) led offensively by senior attacker Krsto Sbutega who averages 2.16 goals per game, a number good enough for third in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. The Montenegro native has 41 goals this season, coming off a performance against #8 UC San Diego in which he scored three. Defensively, the Bruins rely on junior Chay Lapin, who in 543 minutes has averaged 9.39 saves per game. Lapin only allows an average of 5.88 goals per game, good enough for fourth in the MPSF. The last time UCSB and UCLA met, the Bruins overpowered their fellow UC 15-8 in the MPSF Tournament’s fifth-place match.
“UCLA is a counter team,” said Wigo. “They don’t have a really strong half-court offense, but they have a hard counterattack, so if we can shut them down on the counterattack, we’ll be in a great position.”
On Sunday, the Waves (17-6, 4-2) travel to Santa Barbara looking to spoil Senior Day for the Gauchos after beating Irvine 12-9 last weekend. Pepperdine smothered the Gauchos 12-10 earlier this year, earning four goals from senior utility Mat MacDonell during the win. However, the Waves have been primarily led by another MacDonell, junior attacker J.P. MacDonell, offensively. The younger brother was named MPSF Co-Player of the Week last week, and ranks first on the team with 46 goals. Pepperdine has gotten it done by committee in the net, enlisting the freshman John Hahn and senior Jack Curley for a combined 161 saves.
“Pepperdine has a little stronger two-meters,” said Wigo, “And the last time we lost to them 12-10 they scored five goals in the first quarter. Hopefully we’ll get another full crowd; we’ve given them great games this year.”
For UCSB, the Gauchos will have a chance to say goodbye to a class of seniors that have been key for them all year. Senior drivers Miles Price, Daniel Natalizio and Travis Watts have combined for 58 goals this year, a handful of game winners and role models for the younger players. Senior two-meters Ratko Paunovic and Michael Machado haven’t filled up the stat sheet as much this season, combining for only 12 goals, but their physical presence in the pool on defense as much as offense has been key for UCSB success this year. Oddly enough, it is the sophomore goalkeeper Fraser Bunn who comes into the weekend with the most recent accolades, garnering MPSF Co-Player of the Week honors after his remarkable game against Stanford, during which he posted 10 saves.
“The seniors have all really stepped up this year,” said Wigo. “Going into this year I wasn’t sure whether I was going to play them a lot or bring in some younger guys to get them experience for next year. The seniors have really earned their playing time, they’ve all had great moments. [Natalizio] had a game winner against Irvine, he’s been playing really solid. [Price] has been a real star for us on the offensive end as well.”
UCSB takes on UCLA on Saturday at Campus Pool starting at 12 p.m., while on Sunday Pepperdine comes to town at the same start time. Seniors will be honored before the Pepperdine match and, as always, admission is free.