The UC Irvine men's water polo program is known for creeping up on the competition, starting slowly and peaking in the postseason.
But with seven noteworthy seniors on the roster, Coach Marc Hunt's Anteaters appeared to be slightly more advanced as they dived into Saturday's season-opening action at the UCI Invitational.
"We're one of those build-and-develop teams," said Hunt, now in his sixth season at the helm of a program in which he twice earned All-American honors under legendary then-coach Ted Newland. "In the past, we usually get beat up pretty good in the summer time. When we get to the front end of the season, we might scare a few people here and there, but as the season progresses, we really improve. But I think we're a little bit ahead of the curve with this team."
This team was ranked No. 5 in the preseason poll, coming off a fifth-place finish in the rugged Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and a No. 5 final national ranking in 2009.
"We were No. 8 in the preseason poll last year and were kind of lurking in the background all year," Hunt said. "Then, we had a 6-5 loss to Cal [in the MPSF Tournament] that shocked everybody. Then, we blew apart UC Santa Barbara and Pepperdine to finish fifth. We were clearly in the class of the top four."
Hunt said a handful of one-goal losses over the summer to perennial powers Cal, UCLA, Stanford and USC, ranked No. 1 through No. 4, respectively in the preseason poll, as well as a summer triumph over USC, have helped to keep optimism high for 2010.
The Anteaters went 3-0 in the UCI Invitational to open the season this past weekend, with wins over Cal Baptist (10-9), Fresno Pacific (26-3) and Pomona-Pitzer (19-5).
"The expectations are high; they always are," Hunt said. "We bring back some guys who have played and have some good experience."
Foremost among the returners are seniors Brandon Johnson and Tom Kruip, who scored 49 and 50 goals, respectively, to lead the team last season.
Johnson is a two-time second-team All-American and All-MPSF performer whose ability to draw defensive focus will help create better scoring opportunities for his teammates.
"He's going to have a target on his hat all season," Hunt said of Johnson, a driver whose twin brother, Matt is the team's senior goalie. "He just has this commanding presence. For everyone we play, he'll be the No. 1 guy to defend."
The presence of Kruip, who earned third-team All-American recognition last season, will take some pressure off Brandon Johnson, Hunt said.
Hunt thought Kruip had exhausted his eligibility last season, but the UCI compliance office discovered that since he competed only in swimming as a freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a fourth water polo season was in the cards for the 6-foot-5, 205-pound utility man.
"It's better than any recruit I could possibly bring in," Hunt said of Kruip's return.
Kyle Kruip, a 6-5, 215-pound senior center, also returns after producing 25 goals last season, sixth-best on the team. The Kruips are also twins.
Doug Lindsey, a 6-0, 185-pound senior driver, has more velocity on his shot than any of the Anteaters, Hunt said, while senior Griffin Lerman (6-3, 215) has shown he's ready to assert himself at two meters, after producing 14 goals in reserve duty last season.
"His offensive game has really come together in the off-season," Hunt said of Lerman, another co-captain. "He's a real strong offensive player and the backbone of our defense."
Senior driver Kyle Baxter and junior utility man Max Parrague are additional weapons, while sophomore transfer Winston Newland and redshirt freshman Mitch Wise have impressed Hunt with their potential.
The Anteaters, picked to finish fifth in the MPSF, open conference play Oct. 9 at Pepperdine.
After the UCI invitational, UCI now has only six regular-season home games.
"We'd better be good on the road," Hunt said.