Sept. 7, 2006
Stanford, Ca - Every year, Stanford head water polo coach John Vargas produces great teams that compete for the NCAA championship. In four years at the Cardinal helm, Vargas has guided Stanford to the NCAA championship game, including an NCAA title in 2002.
That sounds like an easy task, but Vargas faces enormous challenges each year. Great players arrive on The Farm, and then graduate. In the last two years, replacing some of the best collegiate players in United States history has not been easy, but Vargas still gets the job done.
Before the start of the 2005 season, Vargas had to replace the best player in the history of collegiate water polo, Tony Azevedo. Azevedo, a two-time member of the United States Olympic team by age 22, helped lead Stanford to a 91-16 record, four trips to the NCAA title game, and two NCAA titles.
Vargas worked his coaching magic last year, and despite the loss of Azevedo to graduation, Stanford chalked up a 20-7 record and advanced to the NCAA title game. Last year, Peter Varellas and Thomas Hopkins combined for 110 of Stanford 245 goals. In their four-year careers, Varellas and Hopkins chalked up a total of 347 goals, four trips to the NCAA title game, and one national crown.
Vargas must now find replacements for Varellas and Hopkins as he prepares for his fifth season in 2006.
"Losing Thomas (Hopkins) and Peter (Varellas) to graduation will definitely have an impact on the team," said Vargas, who has chalked up a career mark of 89-22 (.802) against the top collegiate competition in the country. "Peter and Thomas played a large role on the four teams that went to the NCAA championship final. Thomas played in every one of those championship games and made a significant impact in each of those games. Peter played in three of those games, and also made an impact. Both were great All-Americans."
Vargas, in 2006, will coach a team that will be young. On Stanford's 19-man roster, only two players are seniors, a handful are juniors, and the majority are sophomores along with a true freshman class that numbers five.
Despite the loss of its top two scorers to graduation, Peter Varellas (62 goals) and Thomas Hopkins (48 goals) last year, the Cardinal does have enough firepower to get the job done this year. William Hindle-Katel, Michael Bury, J.J. Garton, Tyler Drake and Ryan Fortune combined to score 103 of Stanford's 245 goals last season. Hindle-Katel, a sophomore, leads the Cardinal returnees with 37 goals, while Bury, a junior, tallied 27 last year.
"Will and Michael played the center positions last year, and these two players surpassed my expectations," said Vargas. "They played very well, and they were one of the key reasons that we were able to reach the NCAA championship game. Will and Michael made that type of impact."
Garton, one of only two seniors on the roster, tallied 16 goals in the 2005 season. Expect his scoring production to improve significantly in 2006.
"What is amazing about J.J. is his ability to do so many things for us," said Vargas. "He goes unnoticed. J.J. scores when we absolutely need a goal. He is our best defensive player. When we are playing a team that has a great offensive player, J.J. is the guy who usually shuts him down. He is one of the main reasons why we have done so well the last couple of years."
Drake and Fortune combined to score 23 goals last year. "Drake is a fifth-year senior, and we're expecting a lot out of him offensively," added Vargas. "Fortune is a two-meter defender who gets better year-by-year. Ryan has played significant minutes the past two years."
Despite the loss of the powerful scoring load of Hopkins and Varellas, Vargas says the offensive system that has worked in past years will again be in effect in 2006.
"What is interesting is that in all of our big games last year, everybody contributed to the scoring column, not just Thomas or Peter," said Vargas. "We got goals from a lot of different players. We're going to spread out the scoring this year. It won't be focused on just two guys. We'll have a lot of people scoring goals."
Last year, the Cardinal played great defense. That was in part to the efforts of junior goalkeeper Sandy Hohener, a second-team All-American. Vargas says Hohener, who collected 171 saves, was the best goalkeeper in the country.
"Sandy Hohener is a great athlete but he is a great competitor more than anything else," said Vargas. "He continues to get better. He'll be the backbone of our defense. He will keep us in games just because of the fact that he is a good player." Hohener will be backed by the talented duo of Jimmie Sandman and Beau Stockstill.
Vargas has recruited another excellent freshman class, five to be exact, for the 2006 season. The list includes the Wigo twins, Drac and Janson, Will Smith, Cody Wiesen and Sage Wright. The Wigo brothers (from Northeast High School in Oakland Park, Fl) have the ability to make an immediate impact on the Cardinal in 2006.
"They are unbelievable water polo players," said Vargas. They come from a talented family. Their father, Bruce, was the former executive director of U.S. Water Polo, while their older brother, Wolf, was a four-time All-American at Stanford, and one of the great players in collegiate history in addition to being a member of two U.S. Olympic teams. "These two freshman have grown up playing water polo, and they have the capabilities of making an impact on this team right away."
As always, Stanford will play a highly competitive schedule in 2006. The home schedule includes a game against defending NCAA champion USC (11/4). Stanford will also host the NorCal Tournament (10/14-10/15) featuring nearly all of the top nationally-ranked teams in the country.
Stanford opens the 2006 season on Sunday (9/10) with two games at Air Force. Stanford will face Navy at 11 a.m. (mt) and then Air Force at 4:00 p.m. (mt).
Stanford is ranked fourth in the Collegiate Water Polo pre-season poll. The Cardinal generated 85 points compared to top-ranked California (99 points), defending NCAA champion USC (95 points) and UCLA (91 points). Pacific resides in fifth place (80 points). Rounding out the Top 10 includes Pepperdine (75 points), UC San Diego (68 points), UC Irvine (63 points), Loyola Marymount (63 points) and UC Santa Barbara (54 points).