The 1996 California men's water polo team has a lot going for it. The Golden Bears return five starters from last year's squad that finished 20-7 and placed second in the NCAA Championships, they have one of the most talented players in the nation in two-meter man Brent Albright and they have several other players who are potential All-Americans.
The problem is, a lot of other teams in the West Coast return a large number of players, have an outstanding two-meter man and possess All-American drivers.
"Last year we caught teams off-guard because we were an unknown commodity," explained head coach Steve Heaston, who guided his young team to the program's third, and most important, Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title in 1995. "We are still a young team, but people will be expecting more out of us. We only have two seniors, so we will again be one of the youngest squads among the top schools. There will be a lot of testing under fire. We will have to learn and improve as the season goes along. Eight of the Top 10 teams in the nation will come out of our conference, so there is never an easy game. If you don't play to at least 80-90 percent of your maximum, you are going to get beat. The toughest thing now is to repeat going to the NCAA Tournament."
The whole dynamics of what it takes for a team to make the NCAAs changed last season as the national championship has gone from an eight to a four-team tournament format, with only two of those four teams coming from the West Coast. In order for Cal to qualify, the Bears either have to win the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament or be the No. 1 ranked team in the nation.
Yet, Cal does have the capability to make a run for its 12th NCAA water polo title. The Bears feature an extremely deep and talented squad that is sure to have an impact on 1996 NCAA water polo title chase. Junior captain Brent Albright is one of the best young players in the country, as evident by his selection to the U.S. National Team, where he made it to the final cut for the Olympic Games, before being forced out by a fractured vertebra. Albright is now healthy and is looking to again lead Cal in scoring. He has led the Bears in scoring both as a freshman and sophomore, last season tallying 53 points, including five points in two NCAA Tournament matches. Albright was named Co-MVP of the NCAA Tournament, as well as earning first team All-America and first team MPSF honors.
"The thing about Brent is that he had the advantage of training with the Olympic team for the past six months," said Heaston. "He was practicing with the best water polo players in the country and it really helped his maturity and made him stronger. It also gave him a chance to work on his outside shooting."
Sophomore Pat Cochran will be another one of Heaston's key players after shining as a freshman, scoring 38 points and leading Cal with five, two-point goals. Cochran earned NCAA Tournament First Team honors after scoring four points in the two NCAA matches. He also led the Bears with four goals in the 9-6 victory over UCLA in the MPSF championship match. Cochran will be used by Heaston as the primary driver in Cal's set offense.
Junior captain Peter Stern and sophomore Brad Kittredge are two players who represent the heart and soul of Cal water polo. Stern has been a valuable performer since his freshman year and last season he scored 18 points and was an NCAA Tournament Second Team selection. He will once again be one of the team's top two-meter defenders, as well as a team-leader through his hard work and dedication. Kittredge was extremely impressive as a true freshman last season, scoring 19 points, including three points against Massachusetts in the first round of the NCAAs. He will be a workhorse on the squad with his versatility and endurance.
Two more talented weapons in Heaston's arsenal are sophomores Phinney Gardner and Ryan Flynn. Gardner can play either driver or two-meter and is an impressive athlete at 6-7, 210 pounds. He scored 28 points last season as a redshirt freshman and has improved immensely over the summer, both as a scorer and a two-meter defender. Flynn saw exclusive action at two-meters for the Bears during the spring and summer club seasons and is ready to split time with Albright during the regular season, thus allowing Albright to play outside of two-meters. Flynn was Cal's fourth-leading scorer in '95 with 30 goals.
Junior Jeff Moloughney and sophomore Kyle Nichols continue the list of the Bears top players. Moloughney scored 20 points last season before separating his shoulder in mid-November versus Stanford. He is now healthy and will continue to be one of Cal's most consistent players. Nichols saw limited action last year, but is one of the squad's most improved players and should be utilized for his outstanding outside shot.
Seniors Riki Krumins and Baran Dilaver will also boost the Bears with their assorted skills. Krumins has been a mainstay on the Cal squad the past three years, scoring 14 points last season as one of the Bears best counterattackers. Dilaver, who led Cal with five goals in an upset of then-No. 1 ranked USC in '95, has an outstanding left-handed shot and has improved his defense over the summer.
An important component of any water polo team is at the goalie position and the Bears feature sophomore captain Peter Kiefer. Although Kiefer only played in five matches with 18 saves last season, he has been extremely impressive in spring and summer competition and Heaston is confident in his young goalie's ability. Kiefer strengths include his communication skills, quickness and passing on the counterattack.
"This team has a lot of depth and ways to attack people," said Heaston. "We also have four left-handers and 10 guys who are 6-3 or bigger. We have the potential to be able to utilize several different combinations of players against our opponents, it is just a matter of finding that right combination."