About 25 UC Irvine fans, friends and athletic department officials greeted the Anteater water polo team at John Wayne Airport Monday as it returned from Indianapolis as the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. champions.
A bit after noon, the small gathering cheered as Irvine Coach Ted Newland stepped out of the jet and walked down the stairs. Next, to continued applause, followed the players who defeated California, 9-8, Sunday to win the NCAA championship.
If it wasn't quite a heroes' greeting, it was welcomed recognition for a team playing a less-than-marquee sport. Newland said his NCAA championship teams returning from titles in 1970 and 1982 got no such response. Of course, aircraft weren't involved in either of those trips back from Long Beach.
"It was a complete surprise," said tournament most valuable player Dan Smoot, of the welcome. "I didn't know if anybody knew or not."
More were made aware at halftime of the Irvine men's basketball game with Stanford at the Bren Center Monday, when the water polo team was honored again.
At the airport, the players got hugs and congratulations from friends and a chance to relive their championship by talking about the narrow victory over Cal.
Chris Duplanty, the Anteaters' goalkeeper, was still relishing the save in the final seconds of the match that assured the victory. He said he was worried that Cal would "somehow steal it from us."
Irvine and Cal met three times in the regular season. Cal won twice and the third meeting went to six overtimes--after Cal scored with a second to go in regulation--before Irvine won.
Sunday, with a few seconds remaining, Cal's Luis Ortiz caught a pass directly in front of Duplanty, faked a couple of times and then took a shot that Duplanty blocked.
"When I felt the ball hit my hand, I felt a little rush of energy," Duplanty said. "I just couldn't believe it.
"Not only were we playing a great team, but we were playing the mystique of Cal, the power of collegiate water polo."
Newland, who has coached Irvine water polo since 1966, saw no such ghosts in the pool. Sure, Cal had defeated Irvine in four NCAA finals and the Golden Bears had more championships than any other team, but Newland said there wasn't anything mystical about finally defeating Cal.
"I felt really it was about our turn," Newland said. "It's got to even out."