UC Irvine has long held a special place in aquatic sports. Until the recent success in volleyball and baseball, UCI has been known as a water polo/swimming school.
The location and the weather make the school a hot spot for swimmers to come and hone their talents. Of the 25 national titles the school holds, six come from swimming and water polo, three titles from each.
It is only fitting that when the US Men’s Water Polo team roster was announced on June 30, 2008 at the Los Angeles Athletic Club that one of the most represented schools on the squad was UCI with four. Stanford has four players on the roster, as well.
“Irvine is always one of the better teams, but we don’t win that many championships. But by judging by the number of guys from Irvine on this team, I think they are doing a great job developing players,” said Jeff Powers who graduated from UCI in 2003.
First-year head coach Terry Schroeder announced the squad following the announcement of the United States Women’s team at 10 a.m.
Headlining the Anteater selections was Ryan Bailey, who graduated in 2004. The 6′ 6″ 245 pounds “Beast” is going for his third go at the gold and is one of the most experienced members on the team. The four-time All-American and former Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Year looks to lead the red white and blue at Center. He boasts a powerful backhand shot and even more imposing presence on attack for the United States.
Tim Hutten, who graduated from UCI this past year, was one of the youngest players selected to the squad.
“This has always been a dream of mine. I can’t really comprehend what it means yet. I guess I have to wait until I get to China,” Hutten said.
Hutten had a stellar senior season at UCI last season as he led the team to the MPSF final against the University of Southern California. He also received the Cutino Award, which is the water polo equivalent to the Heisman Trophy. Hutten solidified his selection with an impressive debut performance. He scored seven goals in four matches to help the United States finish runner-up in the 2008 World League Super Final, the national team’s best finish ever.
“He really came and trained hard and overcame some things. He is one of the wild cards on the team who can help us in a lot of ways. We are going to use him as a defender primarily, but if we need some offense we can throw him in there. I love his energy and his confidence. [Hutten] is one of the up-and-coming for Team USA,” Schroeder said.
Don’t let Jeff Powers’ hometown fool you. Altough he was born in Chattanooga, TN where water polo is nowhere nearly as popular as in California, Powers is one of the most versatile players on Team USA and is back for his second shot at Olympic fame. Coach Schroeder raves about his cannon arm, which often leads him to top goal scorer honors in many tournaments with Team USA. Powers can command his rocket arm even better if he makes his legs stronger, which is an aspect of the game the Europeans excel at. He is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons Team USA boasts.
Perhaps the most excited by his selection to the squad was Rick Merlo, who graduated in 2005. Merlo’s older brother Mark played as an antereater and younger brother Curt is currently on the UCI team.
“UCI has very strong traditions. Being a part of that tradition was a dream of mine. I played with [Powers and Hutten] at Irvine, so its awesome being back together. I was the captain when Tim was a young guy. I like to believe I have a lot to do with his success [Laughs].”
After being away from water polo for two years, Merlo came back to the team in January and stayed at home training with the newcomers, while the veterans were abroad. His leaderships and guidance of the new talent is one of the reasons for his selection.
Like Hutten, he will occupy the two-meter defense position when he is called off the bench. Bailey, Powers, Merlo and Hutten are a part of a tradition former head coach Ted Newland and current head George Hunt have built at UCI.
“These guys from Irvine know what it takes and they work hard. They learn that there, and they wouldn’t be on this team if they weren’t great players,” Schroeder said.
The United States team is presently ranked 9th in the nation, and is viewed as an underdog going into the tournament in August. Though many will write off Team USA as medalists, they have surprised many in Europe recently as they kept up with the likes of Serbia, Croatia and Hungry, the top three teams in the world (Team USA even defeated Croatia here at home).
As the players from Irvine selected reflected, there is a great blend of leadership, experience and youthful energy on this squad, a great makeup for an underdog.
Coach Schroeder believes that the disappointment this squad endured early in its preparations has fueled a hunger for success.
Team USA is looking for its first medal since 1988, when Schroeder helped Team USA to the silver medal. The team knows to expect a grueling, competitive atmosphere in the pools of Beijing.
“It’s going to be a zoo,” Powers said.
Let’s hope a few Anteaters can help the eagle soar above all in the end.
Team USA will face host China in the opening match on August 10, and then take on Italy, Serbia, Croatia and Germany before the elimination stages.
Check your local listing in August for game telecasts.
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