STANFORD, Calif. -- Sporting his youngest squad ever, Director of Men’s Water Polo John Vargas hopes skill and hard work offset growing pains this season for the Stanford men’s water polo team. The 22-man roster includes 11 freshmen and 16 underclassmen, which might make some coaches uneasy.
“We’re talented, but we’re young,” Vargas said. “So we’re going to have some very, very good games and we’re going to have some games where they show their youth. But that’s a growing-up process.”
The Cardinal returns four All-Americans, headed by junior utility Alex Bowen from San Diego and sophomore driver Bret Bonanni from Huntington Beach. Bonanni netted a team-high 73 goals last season while Bowen collected 64. Both were first-team All-Mountain Pacific Sports Federation selections.
Redshirt senior two-meter Forrest Watkins from Seal Beach and sophomore driver BJ Churnside of Orange were All-America honorable mention selections. Fifth-year senior goalie Scott Platshon from Menlo School returns, and will be pushed by freshman Drew Holland from Orinda.
Four Stanford players—Bowen, Bonanni, freshman utility Jackson Kimbell from Long Beach, and redshirt freshman driver Adam Abdulhamid of Calabasas—competed for U.S. national teams during the summer and gained valuable experience.
“That’s where it is; playing with the best at the highest level,” said Vargas. “It’s amazing how much that refines their game.”
Bowen and Bonanni left school last spring a week before finals and had to take their tests on the road.
“I didn’t see Alex again until preseason training,” Vargas said of Bowen’s whirlwind summer competing with the U.S. national team. “I gave him an extra week off just to give him some down time. Bret was very similar. When he didn’t make the world team, he came here and trained with us.”
And players didn’t hang around to work on their tans.
“Honestly, summer is probably one of the tougher times of the year for us,” said Vargas. “There’ll be some strength and conditioning in the mornings, and almost 90 percent of the guys are doing some type of internship, research for professors, or taking classes. They’re going for eight hours, then we’ll come back at night and go for two and a half hours. Their weekends are full, too. I call it the six-week sprint.”
Stanford will need contributions from everyone to contend for an MPSF title this year. Although the Cardinal was picked second in the preseason coaches’ poll and is off to a 4-0 start, the heavy lifting starts Sept. 21-22 in the NorCal Invitational at Cal, where a dozen of the top teams in the country are expected to compete, including five-time defending NCAA champion USC.
Of Stanford’s seven losses last season, three came at the hands of the Trojans, all in close games. The Cardinal lost 10–9 in September, 9–6 in October, and an 11–10 heartbreaker in November at the MPSF tournament.
“Each game is important,” Vargas said. “Winning sets you up for going to the NCAAs. We clearly want that. But there’s also an at-large bid that we kind of jockey around for, and that’s important, too.”
Early losses aren’t season-killers, but put added pressure on teams to peak late. Vargas said the NorCal Invitational will provide a good barometer of where his team stands.
At least five true freshmen — Holland, Kimbell, driver Reid Chase of Corona del Mar, driver Connor Stapleton of Davis, and driver Kyle Weikert of Orinda — could be early contributors.
“My deal is this: If you’re a freshman or a sophomore, and you’re at Stanford, you should be playing like a junior and senior,” said Vargas. “The juniors and seniors are doing their graduate work. That’s my expectation. Now, physically, sometimes they’re not there yet with some of these guys, but mentally we should be pretty sharp.”
Now in his 11th season at Stanford, Vargas has led the Cardinal to the NCAA championship game five times and won the title in 2002. During his tenure, he has never signed an international player — a rarity compared to other elite programs. Not that he hasn’t tried.
“We try to recruit international players — I’ve looked at almost every single one of the international guys that are at other schools,” he said. “They’re just not meeting the academic requirements. We haven’t gotten one yet, but we will.”
Last year, Stanford finished 16-7 and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Vargas thinks this team has unlimited potential and is excited to see how things play out.
“This could be a special group, so the expectations are high,” he said. “We know in the back of our minds that there’s going to be some youth mistakes out there. But I don’t expect a lot of them.”