The new Lancer Aquatic Center at California Baptist University bustled with activity this past weekend as ten teams took to the pool for the Lancer Invitational. Hosted by the California Baptist Lancers, the tournament featured eight of the nine SCIAC water polo teams, with Caltech as the only absent squad. The Sagehens entered the tournament winless, having played their first six games against nationally ranked opponents including No. 1 University of Southern California and No. 2 University of California, Los Angeles, but broke the streak last weekend with their first two wins of the season.
The Hens got off to a slow start in their first game of the day against host Cal Baptist. Despite the passive beginning, Pomona-Pitzer managed to tie the game at 5-5 with just over 30 seconds left in the first half on a goal by Dylan O’Connell PO ’14. With the Sagehens trailing 7-5 halfway through the third, Phillip Clayman PO ’16 sparked a Sagehen comeback with a goal before socring another with eight seconds left in the third to give the Hens the lead. Ryan Higgins PO ’14, a Second-Team All-SCIAC member last year, and James Baker PO ’17 both had hat tricks and scored crucial late goals to secure an 11-9 victory for the Hens. In goal, Austin Strong PZ ’15 and Tyler Hill PO ’14 both had strong games, combining for 11 saves.
Head Coach Alexander Rodriguez said that the team is still working to find a group identity and become comfortable with each other.
“Basically I had the same team for the past two years,” Rodriguez said. “Coming into this season I lost a few very strong players so I think we are trying to find our identity. CBU [Cal Baptist] was very well coached and we got off to a slow start. In the third we started getting a few breaks and getting the ball to the low goal and we just took that momentum and carried it through the rest of the game.”
Cal Baptist was handed its fifth loss of the year, but later beat Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in a close game to improve to 3-5.
Baker, the team’s leading scorer thus far with 16 goals, has had an unbelievable start to his season, netting four goals in a game twice, the first time against USC. “James has a lot of talent and potential,” Rodriguez said. “I’m excited about his future here.”
Clayman has netted nine goals while Stephen Vint PZ ’15 has notched seven scores.
The second game of the day for P-P pitted the Hens against the Occidental College Tigers, who came in with a 0-7 record. The Hens got off to a quick start and led 11-3 at the half, on goals by Baker (who scored four times in the first half), Clayman, and Matt Alexander PO ’17, who netted a penalty throw. Alexander had a stellar game, scoring his first three collegiate goals in very quick succession.
Travis Larsen PO ’15, though, had the most impressive goal of the day. Early in the third period, Larsen threw a hard shot that bounced off the crossbar and came back out towards him. Instead of giving up, Larsen battled through two defenders to win the ball back, and then fired a shot that scorched the net. The final tally for the game was 17-6.
“The Oxy game was great for us,” Rodriguez said. “We put some shots away early and gained some momentum. It was great to get some guys in who haven’t been seeing that much playing time.” Rodriguez praised his whole team’s work ethic and said that every team member contributed to its success. The depth of the Hens’ roster could be a defining point for the team this year, giving it a distinct late-game advantage in some cases during the Invitational.
Despite the slow start for P-P, Coach Rodriguez was optimistic about his team’s chances at another SCIAC title, although he credited Whittier College for having a great recruiting class and was impressed with Redlands University’s play against his team earlier this season.
“The only squad that was able to beat us last year was CMS, but this year the SCIAC is going to be very competitive,” Rodriguez said. “That being said, I like our chances in the SCIAC, especially if we continue to grow as a team and improve on our chemistry. We have a great deal of talent and we just need to continue to play hard and smart.”
Rodriguez is used to success; just last winter, the USA Water Polo Association recognized him for his hard work at P-P. Rodriguez earned USA Water Polo’s 2012 Monte Nitzkowski Distinguished Coaching Award for his outstanding work as a coach and for his dedication to spreading the mission of USA Water Polo. Between the men’s and women’s teams, Rodriguez, a former All-American at Pepperdine University, has coached the Sagehens to an astounding nine SCIAC titles.
The Hens will continue their non-league play this weekend and travel to Colorado for the Air Force Tournament. The Hens will kick off their three-game weekend starting on Friday at 6:30 p.m. with a tough game against Mercyhurst University. They will follow up against No. 20 Air Force Academy on Saturday and then finish off the tournament with a non-league game against SCIAC rival Chapman University.