Tritons take sixth at NorCal

The UCSD men’s water polo team went 2-2 at the NorCal Tournament on Oct. 4 and 5, with wins over rivals No. 9 UC Irvine and No. 13 University of Pacific, while suffering losses to No. 4 UC Berkeley and No. 7 UCLA at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center.

Guardian file
Rough waters: At the NorCal Tournament, UCSD defeated UC Irvine and University of the Pacific and lost to UC Berkeley and UCLA.

The Tritons’ defensive play was slow in the first quarter against Pacific on Oct. 4, as UCSD was outscored 4-3 in the opening quarter. But thanks to five first-half goals by junior Jonathan Hopkins, UCSD captured a 7-5 halftime lead and never looked back. Junior Brandon Borso added three more goals, while seniors Matthew Ustaszewski and Matt Ellis, along with junior Clark Peterson, each contributed one to the 11-8 Triton victory.

Saturday’s second game was of significantly greater importance to the Tritons, as they went against eventual tournament champions Cal.

“”Cal was a pretty big game because a win would have put us into top four in the rankings,² Ustaszewski said.

Unfortunately, UCSD’s defense waned in the first half, sustaining nine Cal goals to the Tritons’ two.

“”It was a pretty physical game,² Ustaszewski said. “”They were really trying to wear us down.²

In the locker room at the half, UCSD head coach Denny Harper had the team switch from a drop defense to a full press. The strategy worked flawlessly as the Golden Bears were scoreless in the second half against UCSD’s defensive curtain. But the damage was done, and the three third-quarter goals were not enough for a comeback in the 9-5 loss.

In an early morning game on Oct. 5, the Tritons faced off against UC Irvine. The teams traded goals, but UCI defended the lead into the fourth quarter with the match tied at 6-6. With only 2:50 remaining on the game clock, driver Chris Eicholz scored to give the Tritons their only lead of the game, but it was enough for the win.

The victory over UCI pitted the Tritons against UCLA for the fifth-place game at the tournament. This was the second time in less than two weeks that the teams played each other, after the Tritons were defeated 5-3 at the UCSD Canyonview Pool on Sept. 26.

The Bruins jumped out to an early 2-0 first-quarter lead and were able to maintain it as the Tritons’ offense trailed for all four quarters, not allowing UCLA to let up until the final buzzer. Fundamental mistakes were to blame in the goal differential.

“”We had a few glaring mistakes,² Ustaszewski said. “”There were three or four key turnovers and key situations that they capitalized on. We had a strong second-half counterattack and started to pick it up, but we just ran out of time.²

Coach Denny Harper assessed the loss differently, pointing out that UCLA goalie Joseph Axelrad had an astounding game against the Tritons, blocking 10 shots including a four-meter penalty shot by Hopkins, in addition to specific UCSD flaws.

“”It was good not having to deal with the psychological buildup of last week’s home crowd. I think we played better the second time. We had more offense even though the scoring line was eerily similar,² Harper said. “”We went one for eight on man-up scoring opportunities in the second game, when we were two for 12 last week.²

The 6-4 loss to UCLA left the Tritons in sixth place at the NorCal Tournament, but overall, the team is optimistic. After all, this year’s Triton squad is ranked higher after this tournament than any UCSD team before it.

“”We talked to Denny after the [UCLA] game, and he helped us see that we are a legit, top-level team,² Ustaszewski said. “”We can play with any team in the country.²

A recurring problem for the Tritons this weekend was an inability to start the game aggressively enough. Opponents won the first quarter of each of the four games, outscoring the Tritons, 6-12. This deficit came back to haunt the team against UCLA, when a two-goal, first-quarter spread turned out to be game-deciding goals.

“”The issue has been addressed with the team. I have talked to the captains about the team warm-ups and we have a plan to improve them,² Harper said. “”Some teams start fast and others just start slow. We had a lot of first-period blown opportunities and we were not converting great opportunities that we should have been cashing in on.²