The UC Davis men’s water polo team knows from experience that just one goal can make or break an entire season of hard work and dedication.
With this thought ever-present in the Aggies’ minds, they depart for Los Angeles to compete in the Western Water Polo Association Tournament this weekend at Whittier College.
Working in favor of the fourth-seeded UCD squad is a favorable opening matchup. The locals face off Friday with No. 5 Santa Clara, a team they have already defeated three times in 2012.
But the Aggies — who are ranked 16th in the nation — cannot breathe easy, because they know an encounter with top-seeded UC San Diego looms. The 10th-ranked Tritons bested UCD, 11-8, in a Nov. 1 meeting, and feature the WWPA Player of the Year in junior Josh Stilling.
The competition is fierce because only one team from the conference can earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Championships, hosted by USC on Dec. 1-2.
The Aggies are all too aware of this reality. In 2011, UCD battled through Air Force and Loyola Marymount to get to the WWPA title match, where it fell to UCSD by just one goal in an 8-7 heartbreaker.
Head coach Steve Doten said his Aggies have cleared the hurdle of a 2012 campaign full of different personnel rotations and injuries, and are fully capable of making a return trip to the finals. He explained that accomplishing that is going to depend on keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
“It’s going to come down to our defense,” said Doten, who is in his 12th year at the UCD helm. “If we can hold people to six, seven or eight goals — with our offense potential — we’ll win those games. We’ve got to stay really connected on that front.”
While the Aggies rely on a team-based defense, sophomore utility Chris Richardson’s responsibility to support junior center defender Stuart Dooley and goalie Philip Bates (an All-WWPA freshman team selection) are key to protecting the net.
Richardson was named to the all-conference second team on Wednesday for his efforts. The honor came just days he scored seven goals — the highest total by an Aggie in 15 years — in a 13-11 victory over Santa Clara on Sunday.
Another UCD utility player, senior Matt Vowell, earned a first-team All-WWPA nod. Doten praised the veteran Aggie’s ability to lead, and recognized his prowess on defense.
Vowell, who played high school water polo at Jesuit, outlined what UCD has been concentrating on in its preparation for this weekend:
“Our biggest area for improvement has been our 6-on-5 (formation). On top of that, just making sure everyone is on the same page in every moment of the game — no matter the situation.”
In addition to his defense, Vowell has been a standout on the offensive end, as evidenced by the four hat tricks he has netted thus far in 2012. He showed off his passing ability with five assists in the recent win over Santa Clara.
For the season, Vowell leads UCD in assists (40) and has contributed 31 goals and 58 drawn exclusions. If he can post five more assists in the upcoming WWPA tournament, he will break former Aggie Grant Muenter’s school record for assists in a single season (44).
This southpaw who likes to share has been to the conference competition before, and realizes all that is hanging in the balance for UCD.
“How we do at this tournament is the definition of a successful season,” Vowell said. “Our ultimate goal is to get into the championship game and win it.
“The morale is as good as it has been all season. The team is peaking right now, and everyone has their mind in the right place. We’re ready to play some water polo.”
Doten agrees with his senior standout and expects the positive mind-set to serve the local men well in the days ahead.
“The confidence makes this the fun part of the year,” Doten said. “The guys are playing exceptionally well right now, and everyone is excited — so I am too.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at email@example.com or 530-747-8052.