Oct. 20, 2005
By Jason Cohn
The Santa Clara
With only 23 seconds left to play, the men's water polo team was on the verge of one of the biggest upsets in Santa Clara's history against No. 10 University of the Pacific -- and nobody knew it but them.
In a gutsy move, head coach Keith Wilbur called a play for freshman utility Jack Wall during their final timeout. When Wall got the ball with only three seconds left to play in an 8-8 game, Wall found nothing but net and clinched a huge victory for the Broncos.
"Honestly, I didn't think twice about it," said Wilbur, of his decision to put the ball in Wall's hands. "It was the right thing to do and I'm not surprised that he stepped up and hit that shot."
The water polo team has had a tremendous start this season, ranked No. 18 in the nation with a 13-9 record.
The team's victory over the Pacific Tigers marked the first time men's water polo has defeated a top-ten-ranked team in Wilbur's four-year tenure at Santa Clara.
With absolutely no seniors, only two juniors and a high number of freshman walk-ons when Wilbur arrived at Santa Clara in 2002, the water polo team was in serious need of rebuilding. After four years of actively recruiting talented high school players, Santa Clara is a serious force to be reckoned with in the pool.
"Recruiting is important. You have to have a good group of guys to work with, so I've made a strong effort to bring in a strong class every year I've been here," Wilbur said.
Luckily for him, recruiting has become more of a team effort and the players understand the importance of their roles.
"It can be tough to recruit good players because we can't offer them that much in the way of a scholarship," said Wall, a quick-learning freshman.
This means that Santa Clara water polo has relied on several other things besides money to draw players in.
"Personality is a huge thing around here. When recruits come here they have to think to themselves: 'is this a group of guys I could spend 40 hours a week practicing and playing with?' " said team captain Austin Brizgys. "Our coach tries really hard to get guys to visit Santa Clara so that we can meet them and show them what our team is all about."
Wall is a perfect example of how the team's personality played a huge factor in his decision to come to Santa Clara. He is a Los Gatos native who played on one of the top water polo teams in the country at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose and had a number of options when it came to picking colleges. Wall says he was convinced to become a Bronco because Santa Clara brought something to the table other than scholarships and facilities.
"I really like the group of guys. I came here on a recruiting trip and ended up having a lot of fun. I thought that this place would be a good fit for myself and the team would be a group of guys that I'd like to spend the next four years with," Wall said. "Our biggest strength is our camaraderie. Most teams I've seen are divided into cliques in some form or another, but practically everything we do both in and out of the pool is together as a team."
Yet, it's not just Wall that has been impressed. The team is also impressed with him.
"What really impressed me about Jack is his level of confidence. When he was put in in his first game against No. 4 Stanford, he went right after them and immediately knew what to do, almost like he was a senior out there," Brizgys said.
There is no doubt that this strong sense of camaraderie among the team has propelled Santa Clara's success and allowed them to pull out a number of big wins as a squad. It also factors into the way that Wilbur recruits new team members.
"It's no accident that the team has built such strong bonds with each other," Wilbur explained. "Part of whether or not I go after guys is not just the question of whether or not he is a good player, but does he interact well with the team and did the team like spending time with him as well."
Due to this philosophy, the water polo players seem to have a strong sense of trust in each other, and when one player is asked to step up their play, the rest of the players are often behind them.
These feelings of trust for fellow teammates and solidarity have convincingly allowed the team to play well, no matter who is in the pool at any one time.
"The thing I love about our team is our depth. I can take all six starting field players out of the pool and put in six different guys and our level of play doesn't really drop at all," Wilbur said.
Wilbur believes that this type of team depth has a big effect on opponents mentally because he can continue to throw fresh players into the game while other teams tire.
His philosophy became evident this past weekend when Santa Clara pulled out an 8-6 overtime upset against No. 16 Air Force on the second day of the grueling NorCal tournament in Berkeley.
While it was no surprise to see the usual goal contributions from seniors Grant Allison and Jon Greco, who have a had a number of solid games this season, the underclassmen were also at it again. Wall scored three, sophomore two-meter defenseman Tommy Kelly got two and freshman driver Tom Hendrickson buried one.
The Broncos ended up losing three of four at the Berkeley tournament but still won the upset over Air Force to maintain a good level of team morale. Next up for the Broncos will be an away match at UC Davis on Oct. 22.
The Western Water Polo Association Championships loom on the horizon only a month away, but for now, continuing the streak of solid performances that have been abundant this season leaves little doubt that the future of the Santa Clara water polo program is in good hands for years to come.