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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Aggies chasing perfection in conference

Is it possible to improve on perfection?

Men’s water polo coach Steve Doten thinks so.

The UC Davis men’s water polo team chases a perfect record against teams in the Western Water Polo Association. Though they are currently 8-0 in conference play and 9-3 overall, coach Doten still knows they haven’t reached the top of their game yet.

“We’re still getting guys back from injury,” Doten said. “It’s still early. We’re trying to get our best starting six in the mix while we’re playing with different players. It’s all coming together. The guys have good fundamentals and know how to play the game.”

If the best is truly yet to come, then Aggie fans will have much to celebrate.

UC Davis lost its first game to No. 1 California 14-4. The Aggies struck first and controlled the pace of the first quarter. It was bad passing and breakdowns on defense, however, that did them in.

“Our passing was terrible and led to many easy points off of our turnovers,” Doten said. “We have got to be able to make a pass.”

The Aggies’ next six games were played in a span of three days. In that time, the defense returned to form. No team scored more than seven goals against UC Davis. In their final game at the Inland Empire Classic, the Aggies yielded only three goals.

As expected, the stingy defense created offensive opportunities. In each of the six games, the Aggies scored in double digits. Redshirt junior Aaron Salit was awarded a WWPA honor for his 18-goal performance during the weekend.

For Doten, it was important for the second unit to get some playing time as the bench is still an issue for the Aggies.

“We still need some depth, and we need to bring up the freshman,” Doten said. “We played the second-string in all of those games. It’s important to get the second string as developed as the first.”

Despite a loss to No. 4 Stanford in the NorCal Invite last weekend, the Aggies upset UC San Diego by a score of 10-7 the same day. Against their next two opponents, Santa Clara and Air Force, the Aggies only surrendered four goals. Currently, the men’s squad is ranked No. 15 in the WWPA.

“I’m glad to see us play a little bit better than against Cal,” Doten said. “It’s nice to know that our concepts work. Our speed shows a little more against some of those teams, and our starting group has been very productive. We’ve had better decision making.”

Even though the Aggies have had a good season thus far, they still have a lot of work to do if they want to reach the NCAA water polo championships. The Aggies will again take on Cal next week and Stanford in November.

“Cal and Stanford are two tough teams,” said senior Cory Lyle. “They bring a lot of intensity and experience. We proved that we could hang with the best of them. If we can stay focused for four quarters instead of just a quarter, we can win.”

“Cal relies on a lot of our mistakes to get their offense going,” said senior Carlos Martinez. “But Cal and Stanford both have a lot of trouble against our set defense. As long as we reduce our turnovers, we can be competitive. No team should feel comfortable playing us. Every game we want to make a statement, that UC Davis is still competitive.”

No. 7 Pacific, No. 8 Loyola Marymount University and No. 9 Pepperdine University also loom ahead for the Aggies.

Though UC Davis has already pulled an upset against 11th ranked UC San Diego, the Aggies can shake up the water polo community with a win against LMU, a longstanding juggernaut within the division. For the Aggies, it’s personal.

“LMU has always been the powerhouse – and now it’s our turn to avenge a loss from a few years back,” Martinez said. “A few years ago, UC Davis was expecting a win at the championship, and then was upset. We saw how crushed the seniors were, and we don’t want to happen to us. These past four years, we’ve been working as hard as we can.”

Though the team is out for a championship win and to prove something to the WWPA, they want to make sure to send a message to the Davis community.

“I want to go to NCAA championships,” Lyle said. “But we’re even hungrier to perform because of the fact that sports were cut. We want to show everybody that decision [to keep water polo] wasn’t a mistake.”

For Doten, the key step to getting there is the cliché of hard work.

“The guys have been doing a great job of bringing first-day excitement every day,” Doten said. “We’re always playing to be in the championship game. We’re still not hitting on all cylinders, but we can start soon. This team has a lot of potential.”

MATT WANG can be reached at sports@theaggie.org.

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