By Chayla Furlong
What does it take to make a championship water polo team? A strong group of starters, contributions from newcomers, a group of friends, a goalie that is the “bread and butter” of the team, a driver who has “a shot sent from God,” and a point that can “light up the ball like it’s Chinese New Year.”
It takes talent, heart, and a love of both the game and teammates to reach that nationally recognized level. The guys on the UC Santa Cruz Men’s Water Polo Team have it all.
This is the recipe for success, and the Slugs were able, for the first time in school history, to bring home a NCAA championship.
“Before the season started we knew it was a special team with the athletes we had,” Coach Alan Cima said. “We knew the strengths of the team, and when everyone played together and bought into the program, it was just really strong.”
In the past, the Slugs haven’t had as much talent on the team. They also struggled to keep coaches, and had a less-than-stellar reputation on campus. Because of these issues, Men’s Water Polo was put at the top of the list for sports programs to be cut from the UCSC athletic department about seven years ago.
“The team was highly disorganized due to irresponsible players and coaches, and none were really sticking around and taking the weight of a team on their shoulders,” Captain Grant Shubin said.
These days, the Slugs have put the past behind them and are building a new name for UCSC Men’s Water Polo. The current coaches, Alan Cima and Randy Whitchurch, were committed to developing the team this past season.
“If we had to look at what was different in the past, the players were people who had 20 different personalities and all hated each other,” Cima said. “The group we have now is very supportive.”
“Since then, the team’s progress has been positive, because we were obviously pretty low, and now we just won a championship,” Shubin added. “It’s been a really crappy trail, but it seems like now we have the right things in motion.”
The beginning of the season was difficult, with some tough losses to highly ranked schools. The Slugs lost 10-7 to UC Davis and had a heartbreaking overtime loss to their rival team, Santa Clara. But the Slugs did well enough to qualify for the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) conference tournament, putting them in a position to qualify for the overall national tournament and to earn a high ranking in DIII. In the tournament, the Slugs beat Pomona-Pitzer 7-4 in the final round for the national title.
“We were beating ourselves mentally[earlier in the season],” Captain Justin Garver said, “so we all kind of focused and said to each other, and to ourselves, that now was the time.” The team’s success includes not only a DIII championship, but a ranking of 19th in the nation overall, including the tough Division I and Division II teams.
“Playing that last championship game, we all knew the meaning of the game and we all knew how we had gotten ourselves in a position to attain the ultimate goal,” Garver said. “Literally, right before the game we were saying, ‘This is for the seniors. We’ve got this last game for them, and this is the time to shine.’” And shine they did.