After 5-0 tourney, Tritons are confident about WWPA

    How must it feel to be the No. 7-ranked collegiate water polo team in the country, have better than a .750 winning percentage, and to have just swept through a five-game tournament undefeated, outscoring the opposition 80-24? Ask the Triton men’s water polo team about the 2004 UC Santa Cruz Slugfest on Sept. 25 and Sept. 26, where UCSD wouldn’t let the competition even come close, taking wins over Claremont, La Verne, host UC Santa Cruz, Cal Lutheran and Santa Clara.

    “We go into any game that we play making sure that we respect our opposition,” said sophomore utility player Joe Woodring. “We know that the kinds of teams that we played at the Slugfest come out to play their best against us because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

    To open the tournament Sept. 25, the Tritons netted 37 goals in two games, toppling the Claremont Stags by a 15-8 margin and later thrashing La Verne’s Leopards in a 22-3 blowout.

    “The teams we played this weekend were not quite the competition that we were looking for,” junior driver Chris Eichholz said.

    Eichholz led the UCSD scoring effort against the Stags with four goals. His performance was complemented by freshman driver Adnan Jerkovic’s hat trick

    In the second match of Sept. 25, the Triton’s dominance surfaced almost before the first whistle of the game. In 28 minutes of play, UCSD had little trouble racking up 22 goals while restricting the Leopards to only three. Eichholz headed the charge for the Tritons as he put away four goals, followed closely by junior two-meter man Chris Finegold and freshman driver Curtis Williamson, who each posted three scores.

    Returning to the pool Sept. 26, UCSD maintained its poise as the team took on tournament host UC Santa Cruz in the day’s first game. Thanks to three-goal games by Eichholz and junior two-meter man Matthew Budnick, the Tritons were able to follow up an 8-2 halftime advantage with a 14-4 victory.

    In the second match of the day, UCSD handily shut down Cal Lutheran in an 18-5 contest. Williamson stepped up as the leading scorer for the Tritons, putting four goals away. Freshmen Nathan Weiner and Sid Menon converted three goals each, demonstrating the new talent on the UCSD bench. Goalie Colin McElroy pulled down seven saves in the cage for the Tritons.

    Before the long tournament’s final match against Santa Clara, Broncos claimed the win prematurely, according to Eichholz; but before the game was through, UCSD had Santa Clara choking on its words with a staggering 11-4 conquest.

    Clinging to a narrow 4-3 lead after the first quarter, the Tritons blew the game open with a 5-0 second quarter that left the Broncos devastated.

    Fewer Tritons scored in the Santa Clara match than any other throughout the tournament, but clearly there was no trouble posting the numbers for the sixth consecutive UCSD win. Leading the charge, sophomore utility player Jesse Castellini couldn’t be contained and rallied for four goals. Eichholz, Finegold and Jerkovic were dependable for a pair each, sealing the match.

    Wins at the Slugfest pushed the Tritons’ record to an impressive 13-4 as the team prepares to do battle with UC Davis on Sept. 30 in Davis, Calif. In one of the first games of the season on Sept. 4 at the UCSD Triton Invitational, UCSD disposed of the Aggies in an 11-8 showing. Since then, Davis has mustered an 8-5 record.

    “We’ll beat [Davis]. No problem,” Eichholz said. “It was close last time because it was practically the first game we played this year.”

    The Tritons have a unique advantage this season in terms of their practices. While other teams are forced to divide their best players from one another to scrimmage in practice, or are forced to compete against players who have played fewer minutes, UCSD has a full, varsity-caliber red shirt team in the water at practice every day of the week.

    “We’re getting a lot of experience from our red shirt group,” Woodring said. “We’re really fortunate to have those guys to play against.”

    Nonetheless, building a NCAA Final Four-worthy squad is no small task. For the Tritons, it means maintaining their strength through the grueling, final weeks of the season in which UCSD faces all of its conference opposition before going into the Western Water Polo Association tournament. The winner of this championship will advance to the Final Four to face off against the best Division I competition in the country.

    The past several years, this trip has been an issue of defeating No. 11 Loyola Marymount University, but many feel as though the guard has changed.

    “I expect BYU-Hawaii to be a contender this year,” Woodring said. “The last couple of years, LMU has been solid, but that’s starting to change.”

    The Tritons have a long way to go before they start to worry about the WWPA Championships, though. First, UCSD will be given the opportunity to beat No. 6 Pepperdine in order to step up in the rankings. By the numbers, this should be a formidable task, as the Waves fell to LMU Sept. 25 by a 12-9 margin.

    “We’re definitely going to beat Pepperdine,” Eichholz said. “The last time we played them we were missing shots and making fundamental mistakes. That won’t happen again.”

    As if a guaranteed win over Pepperdine weren’t enough, the Tritons’ scoring leader went on to claim the 2004 WWPA title.

    “We’ll win conference,” Eichholz said. “BYU-Hawaii will be the closest competition, but we’re going to [the NCAA tournament].”

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