UCSB has been the nation’s No. 7–ranked team in men’s collegiate water polo for most of the 2014 season. That’s swell, except the Gauchos’ schedule includes repeated matches against the top six teams, resulting in their suffering nine losses in their last 10 games.
There are five so-called power conferences in college football. In water polo, all the power is concentrated in one super conference: the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). Nine of the current top-10 teams reside in the MPSF, Princeton (No. 9) being the lone outsider. MPSF schools have won all 45 NCAA championships, 40 of them collected by the big four of Cal, Stanford, USC, and UCLA. UC Irvine has claimed three titles; UCSB and Pepperdine have one each.
That’s the caliber of competition the Gauchos face, week in and week out. They’ve managed to hold their own with a makeshift lineup that has been hit hard by injuries. If you watch the big boys play water polo, you’ll notice that it looks like a bunch of hacked-off NASCAR drivers trying to settle their differences in a pool. “We’ve had three or four guys suffer concussions,” UCSB’s Shane Hauschild said. “One of them was punched; one took a knee in the face. It’s a dirty sport.”
Wolf Wigo, the Gauchos’ coach, did not have to look far to find six players who could take a beating and keep on ticking. They all came out of high schools surrounding the UCSB campus. They include the four leading scorers on the team:
• Shane Hauschild (freshman from San Marcos) has pumped in 26 goals and added 16 assists for 42 points.
• Brendan McElroy (senior, Santa Barbara): 16 goals, 23 assists, 39 points.
• Kevin Cappon (junior, Dos Pueblos): 20 goals, 14 assists, 34 points.
• Chase Racich (junior, Dos Pueblos): 16 goals, 13 assists, 29 points, and a team-leading 15 steals.
Those four have been iron men, playing in all 20 games for the 9-11 Gauchos, except for one game missed by McElroy. Then there’s Kenny Constantinides, the 25-year-old freshman from Santa Barbara High, who’s helped out in 11 matches while making a transition from the navy to college life.
“It’s pretty cool to have four starters from local schools,” Cappon said. “The good old 805. We’re not outsourcing for talent. It’s the waterman culture in Santa Barbara. We all grew up being active and being in the water.”
Cappon and Racich were four-year teammates on some dominant prep teams at Dos Pueblos. Another former DP Charger is Derek Shoemaker, who is taking his redshirt year at UCSB this season. That threesome, along with Hauschild, figures to be the core of a contending Gaucho team in 2015.
“Shoemaker has a high water-polo IQ,” Cappon said. “It’s a joy to play with him. He’s a reason I came back to Santa Barbara from USC.”
Cappon played on USC’s 2011 national championship team. The Trojans have won six consecutive NCAA titles. They are responsible for three of UCSB’s defeats this season, one of them by a score of 11-9 at last month’s SoCal Tournament. UCLA, the current No. 1 team, escaped UCSB with a 10-7 victory two weeks ago. “We’re right there,” Hauschild said. “We just can’t get over the threshold.”
The Gauchos were 8-2 a month into the season, including victories over top-10 teams University of the Pacific and Long Beach State at the NorCal Tournament, but then the injuries started to mount. “We lost two starters and other key players,” Wigo said. “The guys we have are playing hard.”
He’s not surprised that Hauschild is off to a good start. “I expected big things from him,” Wigo said of the whip-armed freshman. “He’s going to get even better.” The coach described Cappon as “a really strong player,” McElroy as “a solid guy with a lefty presence,” and Racich as “one of the fastest guys in the pool … he wins every sprint.”
Another Santa Barbara player who is sadly missing from the Gauchos is Nick Johnson, who died last March in an accidental drowning from shallow-water blackout. “It’s the first real loss a lot of us have experienced,” Cappon said. “Nick’s in the back of our minds every time we put on those Speedos.
I could go on and on about him. After losing a tough game, we know Nick would want us to keep working hard. He’d love to be playing with us.”
Wigo has made it a point of emphasis to groom outstanding area water polo players for the Gauchos. They may not have a stack of trophies, but the 1979 team showed it could be done, winning UCSB’s lone NCAA championship until the soccer team pulled it off in 2006.
The Gauchos play their last home game of the MPSF season on Saturday, November 8, at noon, against 11th-ranked Pepperdine. The Waves are coached by Terry Schroeder, a Santa Barbara native who got away. Pepperdine recruited him out of San Marcos High, and he went on to become an All-American star player on three U.S. Olympic teams and the coach of the U.S. men’s team at the last two Olympics.
As quiet as this year’s Halloween was around the campus, it will be very noisy at the UCSB Campus Pool when the Gauchos take on the Waves. “We get great crowds at home,” Hauschild said. “The stands will be packed with as many people as we can fit in.”