After taking fifth place in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament last year, the #6 UCSB men’s water polo team (5-3 overall) is poised to have a strong 2009 campaign and expectations are high.

“We want to win the NCAAs this year,” senior driver Sean Castillo said. “We can be at that level. We’re just not there yet.”

Santa Barbara opened their season at the highly touted Triton Tournament in San Diego. The team’s first game was against host San Diego and the Gauchos erupted for 15 goals, with sophomore two-meter Noah Smith, freshman utility Brian Shoemaker and Castillo each netting hat tricks. Next, UCSB easily defeated Cal Lutheran 18-2 to advance into the semifinals, where they would face the very formidable Pepperdine Waves. The game came down to the wire, with Santa Barbara pulling off an 8-7 win as five Gauchos scored. Junior goalie Fraser Bunn made six saves.

UCSB would then go on to face the perennial powerhouse USC. The Gauchos were no match for the defending national champions, and UCSB could only muster five goals to the Trojans’ 15.
“We learned we’re still not at the level we need to be at,” Castillo said of the loss.

Coming off their successful showing in San Diego, the Gauchos looked to keep the momentum rolling into the Northern California Invitational.

Santa Barbara opened up against Air Force and quickly won 15-5. Junior utility and Serbian sensation Milos Golic had four goals and junior utility Zsomber Vincze netted hat tricks in the win. Next the Gauchos would play the Cal Bears in a very disappointing loss. Cal took a 4-2 lead in the first quarter and UCSB never recovered. Santa Barbara made too many so-called “mental mistakes” and Cal capitalized for a 12-8 win.

The Gauchos would then have a rematch against Pepperdine. The Waves took a 6-4 lead going into the fourth quarter, but UCSB outscored Pepperdine 5-3 in the final quarter to force overtime. However, one overtime period would not be enough to decide the nail-biter as the score remained level after the first. Fortunately for the Gauchos, they prevailed once again as Vincze scored the game winner with 1:25 left in second overtime. UCSB won 11-10.

Santa Barbara then played LMU in the fifth place game, but the Gauchos could not carry momentum into the game and the Lions proved victorious. Santa Barbara took sixth place on an 8-5 loss.

Despite finishing below their goal, UCSB remains confident of their ability to compete nationally.

“We all know we’re talented,” senior driver Stefan Partelow said. “We just need to get together and when we do, we can win those big games.”

Having competed at the highest level in water polo, former Olympian and head coach Wolf Wigo shares the same confidence in his team

“We know we can beat those teams,” Wigo said. “There is no fear.”