April 22, 2009
Santa Clara, Calif. - Santa Clara head water polo coach Keith Wilbur has seen a lot of firsts in his seven years with the Bronco water polo programs and this weekend is another first, maybe its biggest. For the first time in Santa Clara water polo history, the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) Conference Championship will be hosted at Santa Clara University. The 11-team conference tournament will be played from Fri., April 24 - Sun., April 26, at the newly constructed Sullivan Aquatic Center. The winner of the WWPA Championship will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships in College Park, Md., May 8-10.
The No. 20 Broncos (17-15, 10-3 WWPA) enter the 2009 Championships as the No. 3 seed. Santa Clara will play at 5:20 p.m. on Friday, April 24, after a first-round bye. SCU will play the winner of the Colorado State and Chapman game, to be played at 8 a.m.
The Bronco women's water polo team, for the second straight year, was honored by the NCAA today as part of its public recognition awards for their latest multi-year Academic Progress Rate scores.
Coach Wilbur sat down with SantaClaraBroncos.com this week to talk about how his dream has come true, the Sullivan Aquatic Center, what to look for this weekend and how water polo compares to other sports.
SCU: The program is looking for their first NCAA bid with its best finish four years ago, third place, when the seniors were freshmen. Hosting the Water Polo Championship has to be huge for your program.
KW: Yes. It's huge. It's significant. First and foremost we now have a high-quality facility that is capable of hosting this type of tournament. It's fun to have all the teams from our conference play here. We have always played this tournament on the road, so it is nice to now have the opportunity to play these games in front of a home crowd. I am also hoping there will be a good turnout from local high school and club water polo players in the area. They will get to see a great water polo tournament, and it will also give them a chance to see the new aquatic center as well as the Santa Clara campus.
SCU:How was Santa Clara able to host the Championship? Does it rotate?
KW: There is a rotation with the conference to host it. I can't remember exactly the rotation, but I think it goes SO CAL and NOR CAL, etc. In the past we have had to pass when it was our opportunity to host - only the schools that have 50 M pool with all deep water can host. Now we can host because we have the Sullivan Aquatic Center.
SCU: Is this something you've been looking forward since you got here?
KW: Yes, I have been looking forward to a new aquatic facility since I first got here. Getting to host conference championships is just one of many benefits we get from having a 50 M all deep pool. When I was first approached to come here, that was my first question `were they capable and willing to build a new pool if we could somehow raise the money for it'. The answer was yes, so I always thought it was just a matter of time. I can't thank the Sullivan's enough for their generous donation, as well as the many others who help build this new pool.
SCU: What has been the reaction of those who have come to see you compete at the pool so far? For men's and women's teams?
KW: Everybody loves it. Every single person loves it. I have yet to hear a negative comment. Other coaches and teams are impressed by the facility. When I sit in the bleachers between games at a tournament, all I hear are positive comments from all the people in the stands. Everybody loves the setting, where it was built. It's not just a great facility, it's in a great location with all the athletic facilities surrounding it. It's a great place to play, coach, and watch water polo.
SCU: For people visiting the campus, do you suggest they take a short walk and look at the new $100 million Learning Commons as well? Or the new $40 million business school, Lucas Hall?
KW: I hope they get on campus and look around. For the kids that play water polo - if they come to campus and check it out they will love it. Pretty much every water polo recruit who has visited thinks the campus is great. The library, the business school, the pool are great additions to a campus that in my opinion was already one of the best.
SCU: Ok, let's talk specifically about your team in the tournament. You are seeded third right?
KW: Yes, we are the third seed. Last year we were seeded fifth, the year before second and the year before third. I think we have always been somewhere in the 2-5 seed range. We graduated a strong senior class last year so I think people questioned how good of a team we'd have this year; and then injuries came early in the season. But, we have been able to overcome injuries and several new players stepped up this year, so we ended up with a good conference record. We like our seed and the position it puts us in coming into the tournament.
SCU: What will you have to do to do that?
KW: To win? We have got to win three games in a row. The first game is going to be the winner of the Colorado State-Chapman game. I think we beat CSU 8-5 earlier in the year. We aren't a team that will blow anybody out of the water. We will have to work to win. That will be a tough one to start with. Not too many teams will blow us out of the water either though, so if we can make it past the first game, I think we have a good shot at whoever we may see in the semifinals and further.
SCU: Any predictions on who could win?
KW: LMU has to be the favorite. They are undefeated in conference coming into it, and they have won the conference four of the last six years. They are the team to beat - the perennial favorites. We lost 14-8 to LMU earlier this year. We had a bad first half, but we learned from it and played much better in the second half. If we can play like we did in the second half for four quarters, I think we can make it a much closer game.
SCU: On your team who are some players to watch for? Who should Bronco fans look for to do well?
KW: Our team is pretty well balanced. Amy Lamb was first team all conference this year; and she leads the team in goals and assists. She has played a ton since her freshman year. She brings a lot of experience and keeps everybody focused. I think the 2M position is going to be big for us also. Claire Linney plays 2M was second team all conference, and Meg Zimmerman has been having a great year at that position as well.
SCU: Say a fan is coming to their first water polo match this weekend - how would you explain the sport? What would you compare it to?
KW: I would compare it to hockey. It's confusing if you have never seen it, but it's also very physical. If you like seeing two teams go at each other all out, it's definitely going to happen in a water polo game. It is also usually high scoring, and most everybody can enjoy the game within a game of a shooter versus a goalie.
In terms of spacing, it's most similar to basketball. The half court action is mostly run around a post-up (2M) player, and the counter attack is run like a fast break.
SCU: Ok, the spacing is similar to basketball. Would WCC Player of the Year, John Bryant, the 6' 11, 275lb. Bronco center, be a good water polo player?
KW: I haven't seen him swim, but if he can swim, yes. I've seen him play basketball, and I know he is big, strong, has great court vision, and really good hands. Those are all things I look for in a 2M player. A 2M player is essentially another name for center in a water polo game. Kyle Kopp was a basketball player and made the Olympic water polo team after he gave up the court because of stress fractures in his legs. If a basketball player is comfortable in the water, I definitely think they can become very good water polo players. I would love to have a guy with John Bryant's size in the pool. He would be a great two-meter man (smiles).
SCU: What do you hope your team takes away from this weekend and also the school?
KW: First and foremost, I hope the team peaks at the right time and plays their best water polo. If so, we should win the games we are expected to win and give the teams ranked above us a run for their money. Win or lose, I want the players to come out of this tournament knowing they went after it with everything they had.
For the school, as a first time host of our conference championships, I hope we have a great tournament that runs smoothly at our new facility. Now that we have a great venue to play and water polo, it would great to have some large crowds come out and enjoy all the action.
To follow all WWPA Championship action log onto the WWPA Tournament Central.