A series of unrelated events has put the Long Beach State men’s water polo program in uncharted waters.
LBSU hosted and won the Golden Coast Conference Tournament last weekend at Ken Lindgren Aquatics Center. The 10-6 victory over top-seeded Pacific in the championship game qualified LBSU for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1991.
The Beach hosts Pomona-Pitzer for the play-in game at 7 p.m. on Saturday, and the winner advances to the quarterfinals against UC San Diego at Stanford next weekend.
Fortune has favored the Beach this month, and the stars are aligned because of things that weren’t supposed to happen.
They weren’t supposed to be this good
LBSU (13-11) didn’t have a good season in terms of overall record. The 49ers lost 10 of 11 consecutive games in October to finish with their worst win total in three years. However, they turned it all around on November 2 at Pacific.
Austin Stevenson wasn’t supposed to play in that game against the Tigers. The senior defender had suffered an arm injury in September, and worked hard for a month to rehab in time for conference play.
“He’s been playing with us for four years so he’s got experience, and his confidence is contagious,” LBSU coach Gavin Arroyo said. “That just rippled through the team.”
Stevenson was an All-American water polo player at Bella Vista High school before playing in 99 games over four seasons at LBSU. The 6’3” 200-pound senior scored 27 goals this year, and collected a team-high nine steals in five conference games.
“It’s been a journey and a half,” Stevenson said. “But I think we needed to go through those low patches to get to where we are now.”
LBSU gave up a lead with 30 seconds left in regulation at Pacific, but goals from freshman Garrett Zaan and senior Max Cusator in overtime lifted the Beach to a season-changing 14-13 victory.
“He’s our center defender but he also brings in a lot of offensive power,” Arroyo said of Stevenson. “He opens up other people.”
Nine players scored goals against the Tigers, while Cusator and freshman Theodoros Pateros netted hat tricks. The victory started LBSU’s current six-game winning streak.
“Everyone is on the same page,” Stevenson said. “Having seven seniors that have been here really helps with leading where we want to go. Arroyo has set up a terrific system here and we’ve all bought into it. From that, we’re finally reaping the benefits.”
“I personally love a system attack,” Arroyo said. His team didn’t have a player ranked in the GCC top five for any major statistical category.
“We have to invest in the individual and develop players,” he added. “This season was always a race against time with (the player’s) mentality. They’re all kind of worker bee dispositions. Trying to get some leadership and having them being comfortable with being good collectively has been an ongoing struggle for us.”
They weren’t supposed to have him in the goal
LBSU sophomore goalkeeper Marwan Darwish was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, where he played handball, tennis, judo and water polo. The country is not known for water polo, but a local neighbor that Darwish looked up to convinced him to play.
“When I was 12 at a practice scrimmage the goalkeeper got excluded on a penalty shot, so I got in the cage and stopped it,” Darwish said. “I have been a goalie ever since then.”
Darwish knew he wanted to study abroad and play water polo, but didn’t get quality responses from schools such as LBSU. So, the 5’11” undersized goalie just applied to LBSU and showed up on the pool deck almost two years ago. Arroyo gave Darwish a two-week tryout, and he won the backup goalie job.
“It’s just funny how things work out,” Arroyo said. “We don’t traditionally recruit out of Egypt, but we’re so fortunate that he found a way to walk on this team.”
“Adjusting and stepping out of your comfort zone is difficult,” Darwish said. “Every single thing is completely different except for the water polo. Having your teammates and your brothers with you helps. Now I feel like I fit right in.”
Darwish made the GCC All-Freshman Team last season, and then stepped up this season to fill in after the departure of starting goalkeeper Thomas Freeman.
“In the last month he’s really turned a corner,” Arroyo said of Darwish. “It makes perfect sense as far as time and experience to get confidence. When people are throwing balls at you, if you’re second guessing yourself you’ll be exposed.”
Darwish made 24 saves in the two GCC tournament games last weekend to earn the tournament MVP award.
“Marwan was the key,” Arroyo said of his team’s recent success. “When your goalie is making saves they’re not supposed to, it gives the team confidence at the other end.”
“Being a walk-on player from a country that a lot of people think has no water polo, winning MVP is something that means the world to me,” Darwish said. “It’s more than just a dream.”
They weren’t supposed to host
Defending GCC champions Pepperdine had planned on hosting the conference tournament until the recent wild fires reached Malibu. GCC commissioner Mike Daniels reached out to LBSU Andy Fee to set up the contingency plan, and a GCC conference call on Tuesday finalized the site change.
“We had to get creative and really only had about 48 hours to get the nuts and bolts of it together,” Fee said. “The reason it worked is because of the people.”
Fee credited LBSU Senior Associate Athletics Directors Ashlie Kite and Mark Edrington and their staffs specifically for finding a way to host four other teams for five games in three days. LBSU essentially donated its staff to run the event.
“I always tell my staff that if there is anything we can do to get an event on our campus that we’ll do it,” Fee said. “I’ve worked at a Pac-12 school, and seen other conferences around the country and I’d put us up against anybody because of the professionals on our campus.”
“Obviously, you feel a little guilty about someone else’s misery becoming an advantage,” Arroyo said. “But hosting the tournament was an X-factor for us.”
It was an emotional start for everyone when LBSU opened the tournament against displaced Pepperdine.
“The feedback we got from other teams and coaches was appreciation,” Fee said. “Not just for hosting it, but I think we went above and beyond to make it a championship event. Because for that hour of a match it’s a chance to forget all the worries in the world and compete for a title.”
They weren’t supposed to rewrite history
No. 3 seed LBSU upset No. 2 Pepperdine on Friday in the semifinal thanks to a game-winning goal from Theodoros Pateros with 23 seconds left in regulation. Darwish had 15 saves in the 5-4 victory that set up a rematch with top-seeded Pacific in the championship game on Sunday.
“It’s our time,” Stevenson said. “There was no point during the tournament where I thought we would lose it.”
LBSU and Pacific were tied 4-4 at halftime before Cusator, Pateros and junior Austin Stewart scored consecutive goals in the third quarter. The Beach ended up outscoring the Tigers 6-2 in the second half, and Stewart finished with a game-high four goals in the 10-6 win. He has a team-high 50 goals this season, and said this team has been more structured and committed than LBSU teams of the recent past.
“Other teams have been all over the place,” Stewart said. “But we’ve slowly built up, kept using the same system, and kept buying in.”
“I’m really proud of how this team responded to the pressures,” Arroyo said. “For a lot of these guys it was their first time being in a final.”
The conference championship is the seventh for LBSU, and the NCAA appearance is the 12th since the program started in 1969, but all of that happened more than 10 years before the current players were born.
Since then, as a member of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, LBSU had to compete every week with the best and well-funded teams in the nation. This is the third year of the GCC, but the Beach will have to face top teams again at Stanford if they advance.
“In the MPSF we had to beat three Pac-12 teams three straight days,” Arroyo said. “But we still feel like an underdog. That’s the chip on our shoulder. We thrive on that.”
Arroyo and Pomona-Pitzer coach Alex Rodriguez have worked together with the United State Men’s National Team, so the play-in game on Saturday will be a chess match between familiar foes.
Pomona-Pitzer (24-8) won its third consecutive SCIAC Championship last weekend, and is led by Sam Sasaki’s 44 goals and 41 assists. The Sagehens are on a seven-game winning streak.
“This is going to be a challenge for us,” Arroyo said. “I’m just really happy the game is in Long Beach.”
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