Brutal Schedule: Sink or Swim

Lee huang-Chen | Staff Photographer

The pressure of being ranked in the top 10 in any national preseason poll can certainly crush the best of teams, especially those who do not have proper guidance and leadership. It’s not uncommon to see a team begin the season ranked in the top 10, only to finish the season outside of the national polls.

This is the obstacle UC Irvine men’s water polo faces. After finishing fifth in last fall’s MPSF (Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) tournament, the ’Eaters enter the 2010 season ranked fifth in the Top 20 Collegiate Water Polo Association Preseason Poll.

The task to finish the season ranked in the national poll and improve on last year’s 17-12 record may seem like an uphill battle, especially considering that the Anteaters lost two key contributors from last year’s team.

The ’Eaters lose two potent offensive weapons in graduated seniors Tom Kruip and Cole Bielskis. Kruip led the team in scoring with 50 goals and was named a 3rd Team All-American. Bielskis tallied 48 goals last season and received All-American Honorable Mention accolades. Both seniors also earned MPSF Honorable Mention recognition.

Despite losing these players, the Anteaters may have the leadership needed to withstand the pressure that comes with being nationally ranked. They have strong guidance coming from the head coaching position and have a roster filled with experienced upperclassmen.

The ’Eaters are led by coach Marc Hunt who is entering his sixth season as the water polo head coach. Hunt has an impressive resume, as he was named the MPSF Coach of the Year in 2009. This marks the second time coach Hunt has been named MPSF coach of the year, the last being in 2007. Hunt also led last year’s team to a top five finish in the final national poll, which marked the third time in the past five years that the ’Eaters have finished their season ranked in the top five in a national poll.

Shouldering the leadership responsibilities will be senior Brandon Johnson. Johnson scored 49 goals last season, second most on the team. He was also named Second Team All-MPSF as well as Second Team All-American, the senior driver has shown the ability to be the focal point in the UCI offense. He led the team in scoring with 68 goals back in 2008.

The ’Eaters also return their defensive anchor in senior goalie Matt Johnson. In 2009, Johnson recorded 184 saves in 25 starts. He recorded a season high 15 stops on Nov. 15 against Pepperdine.

If the Anteaters wish to build on last year’s success, they will need two key players to step into the spotlight. Seniors Kyle Kruip and Griffin Lerman must help Brandon Johnson shoulder the offensive load by increasing their scoring totals from last year.

In 2009 Kyle Kruip notched 25 goals while Lerman tallied 14. Other possible impact players include redshirt freshman Mitch Wise and senior Doug Lindsey.

The ’Eaters have a tough road ahead of them. In order for the Anteaters to have a shot at competing for an MPSF title, they must face some formidable opponents. UCI will need to beat teams like Cal, UCLA, Stanford and USC. Earning a victory against all four schools is a challenge in itself, considering the fact that all four of these opponents are ranked above the Anteaters in the polls.

UCI will host no.1 ranked Cal on Oct. 30 and the fourth best team in the nation, USC, will travel to Irvine on Nov. 20. The Anteaters will need to find some way to pull out victories on Oct. 23 and Nov. 7 as well, as they travel to UCLA to face the second ranked Bruins and to Palo Alto to challenge the third ranked Stanford Cardinal, respectively.

So far the Anteaters look poised to have a successful season, as they have a single blemish on their record. The Anteaters lost to the USC Trojans 14-10 on Sep 18.

The ’Eaters hosted the UCI Invitational and bombarded the other three participants with their offense, outscoring Cal Baptist, Fresno Pacific and Pomona-Pitzer 55-17. The only close match came against Fresno Pacific, as UCI was able to edge out a victory against the Sunbirds, 10-9.

In the UCI Invitational, the offensive spark plug has not been Brandon Johnson, but rather Mitch Wise, who recorded 10 goals. If Wise can be a consistent offensive factor for the rest of the season, the Anteaters will be a tough team to contend with.

On the weekend of Sep 18-19, the Anteaters traveled to Northern California to participate in the Nor Cal Tournament. The ’Eaters went 2-1, beating Santa Clara, 14-3 and Pepperdine, 16-10. Against Pepperdine, Johnson led the team with six goals. The lone loss came against USC, as the Trojans dropped the Anteaters 10-14.