Whittier College still relishing historic national championship win
WHITTIER – The best season ever for the Whittier College men’s water polo team ended with a national championship in 2019.
The Poets won the inaugural title in NCAA DIII with a 5-3 win over Claremont Mudd Scripps at the Slade Aquatic Center on the Whittier College campus early last December.
Let’s rewind and visit that magical season.
For the fourth time that season the two SCIAC rivals met and Whittier College won for the third and most important time for the title.
“It was a historic season,” said coach David Kasa, who will be entering his third season. “We won the SCIAC regular season, the SCIAC tournament and the National Championship.
“It feels fantastic. All the glory to the guys and they did a great job and they were very excited and motivated to win that championship and to be the first to do it. It was an amazing feeling.”
Perhaps the season was won earlier in the schedule when the two teams met for the first time in early October.
Trailing 9-6 late in the third period, the Poets reeled off six consecutive goals and senior goalie Murat Ersoz held CMS scoreless in the fourth period for the come-from-behind SCIAC win. Ersoz, a three-time All-American, who had the game of his career, was named the National Championship MVP.
Kasa said of that early-season win: “The first time we played CMS here, we were down by three goals in the third quarter and the guys went on a 4-0 run (6-minute span) and that gave us confidence to know that even if we weren’t having a great game and were down, we could come back and win. That kind of led on in the fourth quarter, that we were always tough and would be very strong at the end of the game.”
Junior center defender Hans Zdolsek (from Sweden), who graduated in three years, scored the first two goals on that run.
Zdolsek will attend Fordham University in New York and play his final year while attaining his Master’s in Business.
Kasa, who was on the coaching staff under two-time Olympian Chris Oeding for seven state Juco men’s and women’s championships with Long Beach City College, had many memories of the Poets 2019 title run.
“For me, the most exciting memory was that we won every home game here. I mean, great crowds, great support from the student-athletes here on campus and the community. It was very difficult to come in and play here at Whittier.”
Kasa was actually head coach for one of those championships while Oeding was preparing for the Olympics.
CMS found out how tough it was to play at Whittier in the SCIAC tournament championship game and the final NCAA title game.
In the NCAA championship game, which was a defensive affair, CMS led 2-1 entering the second quarter. The Poets reeled off four consecutive goals, by four different players (Dominick Nevarez, Maxwell Murphy, Eric Borunda and Carlos Heredia Viteri) and held the Stags to one tally in the fourth for the 5-3 win.
“It was pretty surreal,” said Nevarez, who was chosen as the NCAA DIII Player of the Year. “We had a really stacked team and when I played in that championship game, they might have held me down (one goal), but we still won.”
Nevarez, an attacker, who scored 10 goals in the postseason for the Poets, transferred from Cal Baptist University (NCAA DI) after his junior year and quickly became a leader on the team this season. “Because I had played at that high level, I knew what it would take to win.”
Nevarez is thinking about playing professionally next year in the Australian League.
“Nevarez came in from day one and the rest of the players just followed along,” Kasa said. “He just took a lot of players under his wing.”
Perhaps, one of the big goals in the National Championship game came from sophomore attacker Eric Borunda. With Whittier holding on to a slim, 3-2 lead late in the second quarter, he scored an even strength goal (2:38) for the 4-2 lead. A minute later, junior attacker Viteri scored the fifth and final goal for the Poets, as they held on for the win without scoring a goal in the second half.
“I saw all of my teammates rise up and cheer and that pumped me up,” said Borunda, who also won a high school CIF Championship at nearby La Serna high in his senior year. “USA Water Polo put on a great show conducting the championships. It was a full crowd at the games.
“I’ve learned so much from (coach Kasa). He is very intense in practice.”
Borunda, who started playing water polo at age seven, is also excited for next season.
“This upcoming season, we’ll have another senior-heavy team,” said Borunda, whose sister Bianca also won a CIF title this past season at La Serena and will play at UC Santa Barbara.
Coach Kasa, who is assisted by former Long Beach City College player, Max Taylor, had a big roster (26 players) and said this about his squad. “I played a lot of guys during the season. It’s the most I’ve played in games in a season in my 20 years of coaching.
“I’ve been lucky to have been around great players and been around a lot of great coaches. This team was filled with some incredible guys.”
In addition, one of those was junior center Micah Kamai, who opened the scoring early in the first period of the title game with a goal for the 1-0 lead.
“He was one of the reasons why we won,” Kasa said. “He scored the first goal and set the tone.”
Kasa, who also coaches the women’s team at Whittier, was an All-CIF player in his playing days at Canyon high, was a member of the 1991 national youth team, earned Junior Olympic All-American honors and later at LBCC was on a state championship team.
Whittier College Associate Athletic Director and Director of Communications, Lance Franey, who has been around some very good men’s teams over the years on the Whittier campus, said this about the historic win: “To be able to witness history as our men’s water polo team won the Division III Collegiate Water Polo National Championship is one I will always remember.
“To be able to pull off a feat of winning the regular season SCIAC Championship, the SCIAC Postseason tournament title and then the inaugural Division III Collegiate Championship. I’m really proud of this team and what Coach Kasa and his staff have accomplished. They worked so hard all season long and it speaks volumes to the character of this team and to their resilience.
“That championship game came down to the wire but our team was able to persevere, capping off the most impressive single season in program history.”
Highlighting the season, the Poets (21-12, 13-1) went up against a few NCAA DI teams and finished the season with a seven-game winning streak, which included winning 15 of their last 18 games.
Kasa ended by saying about his 2019 team: “These guys will also be champions in life.”
And, they will always go down as the first DIII National Champions.