Wolf Wigo, a three-time Olympic water polo player, continues to strive at an intensely competitive level in his 11th year as coach of the UCSB men’s team. The Gauchos take on powerful teams every week in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. The MPSF boasts the top nine teams in the national rankings, including the Gauchos, who are No. 6 with a 9-2 record. They take a five-game winning streak into their home match at noon on Saturday, October 3, against the No. 4–ranked California Bears.
Three days a week, in the early evening, Wigo takes a break from training muscular college men. He spends time in the pool with children who never would have dreamed of playing water polo a year ago, because most of them did not even know how to swim. In starting up the introductory swimming and water polo program for low-income youths, Wigo said he wanted to combat the perception that water polo is “a rich white people’s sport.”
NCAA ASPIRATIONS: “We aim to be the best,” said Chris Whitelegge, UCSB’s senior goalkeeper. Water polo is a sport in which UCSB can realistically compete for national titles. The Gauchos went all the way in 1979, winning the first of UCSB’s two NCAA Division 1 team championships (the other being men’s soccer in 2006). It’s a big challenge because the foursome of UCLA, USC, Cal, and Stanford are always loaded. The Gauchos had a strong lineup last year, but their hopes were dimmed when three players went out with concussions.
Whitelegge, a three-year starter, is one of the mainstays of this year’s team. In an 11-9 win at Pepperdine last week, he blocked 15 shots. He does not have a big reach at 6′1″, but Wigo said, “Chris has a magnet in his head. He has a knack for following the ball.” The goalie had 13 more saves Sunday when UCSB defeated Navy, 13-7, and Loyola Marymount, 8-5.
The Gauchos also have two of the best players to come out of hometown high schools: senior Derek Shoemaker (Dos Pueblos) and sophomore Shane Hauschild (San Marcos). They are part of a balanced scoring attack that makes it hard for opponents to scout.
“We have talent,” Hauschild said. “We’re not way below teams like USC, Cal, and Stanford.” Whitelegge added, “We’re good friends. We’re super tight.” Last week, the day before the start of classes, they finished a month’s worth of daylong training. The schedule: 6-10 a.m. in the pool; 10-11 a.m. in the weight room; and 2-5 p.m. in the pool. “You get a little loony after a while,” Whitelegge said, “but after I graduate, I’ll miss grinding it out with these guys.”
Cal has been a nemesis of the Gauchos, handing them both their losses this season by 12-5 scores in tournaments at San Diego and Palo Alto. The Gauchos are counting on UCSB’s ancient Campus Pool to make the Bears less than comfortable Saturday. “We were hoping for a new pool by now, but things happen,” said Shoemaker, a fifth-year senior. In the meantime, there’s a unique atmosphere at UCSB’s home games. “The bleachers are packed with fans,” Hauschild said. “People are right on the water screaming and yelling. If I was another team, I’d hate playing here.”
FUN AND REWARDING TIME: Wigo expanded the youth program of the Santa Barbara Premier Water Polo Club to include novice swimmers from low-income families last spring. “If you qualify for a reduced or free lunch at school, you play for free,” Wigo said. “It can open up a new world to kids who normally don’t have a chance to get involved in aquatics. We want them to have fun. We want them to play other sports, too. I’m confident they’ll love water polo.”
The response has been so great that the club’s coaching staff had all the newcomers they could handle and had to turn people away.
Sam Mladjov, a Gaucho women’s team member, said it’s rewarding to work with the youngsters. “They don’t have it easy,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s kind of sad if they don’t have a ride here because their parents are working at five different jobs.”
Wendy Figueroa, 12, could not swim when she got started in the program. “I was afraid of the deep water,” she said. “I felt like I was going to go down instead of up. When I learned to swim across the pool, my parents were proud of me. I learned the eggbeater [a kick water-polo players use to elevate out of the water]. I started passing and shooting.”
Luis Vargas, one of the parents, said it is a relief that he can take his children to the beach and not worry about them playing in the water.
Wigo, who has three children of his own, said the effort can only help his favorite sport. “Brenda Villa got started in a community program,” he said. Villa started playing in the city of Commerce and became an outstanding national team player. She was named Female Water Polo Player of the Decade for 2000-2009 by the FINA Aquatics World Magazine.
YOUNG SKIPPERS: The Santa Barbara Sea Shell Association (SBSSA) has just completed its 67th year of teaching children to sail their own boats around the harbor. Boys and girls ages 8-15 have benefited from the April-September program. To help keep it going, the SBSSA holds an annual fundraiser, a wine tasting, and yacht tour that will take place Saturday, October 3. For information, visit sbssa.org.
OLD SKIPPER: The 11th time proved the charm for John Demourkas of Santa Barbara, who sailed Groovederci to the 2015 Rolex Farr 40 World Championship over an international fleet of 16 other boats. Demourkas finished second in the final race at Long Beach to win by one point over defending champion Alex Roepers on Plenty. It was the first podium finish for Demourkas, the second-longest member of the Farr 40 design class.