Ranked No. 11 in the Collegiate Water Polo Association preseason poll, the UC Davis men know there’s plenty of work to be done if they’re still planning to make waves when that December NCAA title tournament rolls around.
The lofty poll placement equals the highest preseason ranking in school history (2008 and 2009 Aggie squads achieved similar regard) and second-year coach Daniel Leyson believes the notoriety comes with a mixed meaning.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m happy (about the ranking). I was surprised to know that (it equals) the highest preseason ranking we’ve ever had,” the second-year UCD coach told The Enterprise. “So, I can’t say I’m not pleased about it.
“At the same time, if we get caught up with any of that kind of stuff, if we don’t consistently remind ourselves that we have to work so hard, that we have to stay together … and we can’t start getting ahead of ourselves because we could easily be lower than that at the end of the season.
“Or we could be higher.”
Last year, UCD finished at No. 14 after going 14-13 (5-0 in the Western Water Polo Association).
The Aggies dropped a 6-4 overtime decision to UC San Diego in the league’s postseason finale, costing them a trip to NCAAs — won for the sixth straight year by Leyson’s former employer, USC.
“With lofty rankings comes more prep by opponents who start taking us a little more seriously,” explained the coach, pointing out that UCD has a tough-enough schedule as it is without being targeted.
Come Saturday, the locals open the Triton Invitational in San Diego with none other than the national champion Trojans (9:50 a.m.). USC is ranked No. 2 behind Stanford.
Later in the day, WWPA member Cal Baptist and the Aggies get a peek at each other before an Oct. 9 conference-kickoff tilt in Riverside.
Sunday, UCD takes on Mountain Pacific Sports Conference foes UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara.
The Aggies get in more deep water Sept. 13-14 when they play at No. 4 Cal, then visit No. 5 Pacific.
After playing in the Tigers’ NorCal Invitational Sept. 20-21 in Stockton, the locals finally come home for the Aggie Shootout (Sept. 27-28), which has Navy, Whittier, Chapman and Cal Lutheran visiting.
Top-ranked Stanford — featuring former Davis High All-American Connor Stapleton — invades Schaal Aquatic Center on Oct. 5 (noon).
Tournaments in Los Angeles and Santa Clara are also on the Aggie agenda.
While the schedule is dynamic, Leyson says his team is balanced, working hard and, he hopes, up to the task:
“One of our strengths is our driving game. But I don’t really see any particular aspect of our game that is head and shoulders above any other aspect. I think we’re pretty solid across the board.”
Returning is utility standout Chris Richardson. The senior by way of Palos Verdes High was the Ags’ top scorer (49 goals) in 2013. He’s joined by Golden West College transfer Sean Grab and Teddy Nicholson (another DHS product) in an attack that Leyson believes has some punch.
Richardson is on pace to establish a new school record for goal proficiency, and already has 158 career netbenders (currently seventh all-time). The Aggie standard-bearer is Kevin Quinn, who scored 202 times in 1993-96.
“I’d like that (record) to happen for him,” Leyson said. “I don’t want to focus on that, but he’s definitely our most dynamic offensive player.”
Grab “has potential to be really effective in the attack” and Nicholson, who scored 28 times last season, is expected to be one of the team’s main center players.
“(Nicholson) is very effective at that position,” Leyson explained. “He has gotten a lot stronger and a lot better. I’m expecting huge contributions from him. He’s one of our three seniors. He’s a leader in the water.”
Beside Nicholson and Richardson, that other senior is defender Michael Wright — yep, another gift from Davis High.
“He’s a director on defense,” Leyson said of Wright. “Another leader in the water who leads by example. He works very, very hard. I am expecting big contributions from him, too — not only defensively, but on the attacking end. He’s a really good 6-on-5 post player and can shoot from the outside … also post up.”
Leyson loves his freshman and JC-transfer additions and points to Talon Gay (Marrieta Valley High), Cory Laidig (Agoura High) and Shawn Welch (St. Francis High of Mountain View) as guys “who could contribute right away.”
Veterans like attacker Austin Beckwith (21 goals in 2013) and defender Wes Lincoln also drew Leyson’s praise. Two-meter menace Tennyson May is a sophomore who, at 6-foot-7, could emerge.
“We have a tough schedule,” Leyson concluded. “But we always have a tough schedule. To play USC right off the bat, the national champion six times in a row … it’s a big challenge.”
At least the Trojans graduated their five All-Americans.
Notes: Michael Wright is the son of UC Davis women’s water polo coach Jamey Wright and ex-Aggie pool star Nancy Corstorphine Wright. … Four goalkeepers are in camp. Phillip Bates, the Santa Barbara native who started 20 games last fall, is joined by West Valley College transfer Nico Chapman, redshirt freshman Jake Becker (Wilson High of Long Beach) and true frosh Spencer Creed, a 6-4 stopper from Las Lomas High. … Leyson said he talked with USC coach Jovan Vavic on Monday night. Admitting it was fun to catch up with his old boss, Leyson added: “Here’s what I expect from USC — no favors.” … WWPA members Loyola Marymount (No. 14) and Santa Clara (No. 17) earned national rankings, with Air Force and Cal Baptist receiving votes.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-320-4456.