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Last-second victory vaults water polo closer to No. 1

DAVID HARDEN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
UA water polo player Jeff Dunham attempts a shot last night during practice at the Student Recreation Center. The water polo team is ranked second in the nation.
By Christopher Wuensch
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, October 2, 2003

One second. That's all the UA men's water polo squad needed to send waves throughout the country.

With one tick left on the clock in Sunday's championship match against the Michigan, Todd Carpenter stepped up and instantly made a name for himself among his No. 2-ranked Wildcat teammates.

The sophomore's odd-angle blast found its way into the back of the net with :01 left in the game to give Arizona a 9-8 victory over the No. 3 Wolverines, claiming the Miami, Ohio Invitational title for the Wildcats in the process.

"I can't believe it went in," Carpenter said about his tourney-winning goal. "It was kind of in slow-motion. I heard no one else around me just my teammates yelling."

A year ago, Carpenter was out of water polo and attending classes at Cal-Poly Pomona. After dedicating himself to the sport for eight years and throughout high school, the sophomore decided to get back into the water when he arrived at the UA.

Carpenter played an instrumental role at Pasadena's Poly Technic High School's back-to-back California Interscholastic Federation state titles during his junior and senior years. The sharp-shooting utility player scored six goals during the school's championship water polo's equivalent to the World Series.

When Carpenter's self-described "last-second power shot" made its way past the Wolverine goalie, Arizona felt it had enough to propel it to the national No. 1 ranking among club teams. With top-ranked Cal-Poly University dropping two matches the previous weekend, Arizona seemed primed to take over as the nation's elite squad. To the dismay of the Wildcats, pollsters thought differently, keeping Arizona sandwiched between Cal-Poly and Michigan at No. 2.

"It's disappointing," said senior Sean Devlin. "I felt we should have been No.1"

Team captain Brian Snell offered a different perspective days before Arizona's snub.

DAVID HARDEN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
UA goalie Justin Corea attempts to save a shot last night during practice at the Student Recreation Center.

"Rankings don't matter," Snell said. "Improving (in) every game is what counts."

To get to Michigan on Sunday, the Wildcats first needed to go through some of the nation's top competition. Arizona rolled past No. 7 Michigan State, 9-6, No. 8 Indiana, 13-12 and Notre Dame, 18-5.

The victory over the Wolverines was the sweetest of them all for the Cats.

Arizona won over the Big Ten fans early, silencing the trash-talking, overconfident Wolverines.

"We became fan favorites and got a lot of respect out there," senior Andrew Acedo said.

According to Acedo, players from Indiana, Notre Dame and Michigan State approached the Wildcats and asked them to take care of hated Michigan.

For Arizona head coach Jeff Velasco, beating the Wolverines helped to settle an old score. Velasco, who has been a part of Arizona water polo for 12 seasons, was head coach of the 1996 UA squad that lost to Michigan in the national title game.

"It was a sweet revenge," he said.

According to the Velasco, this year's squad may be better than 1996's. The coach believes the talent and work ethic of this group of Wildcats has what it takes to win a national championship.

"This is probably the best crop of recruits and returners the school has ever had," he boasted. "It might be the best club team we have had since 1979."

Velasco's squad takes on a new look this season, shifting the focus from offense to defense. Last year, the Wildcats outgunned opponents by averaging over 25 goals a game.

This season, Arizona is getting the job done with solid defense, as evidenced by the Wildcats holding the Wolverines who average 15 tallies each time they take the pool to a mere eight goals.

Jeff Dunham set the tone over the weekend, swiping 18 steals from the competition. Dunham is averaging over four steals per game.

Reigning Southwest Conference Most Valuable Player Anthony Delorenzo led all Wildcat scorers with 19 goals, followed by sophomore Eric Qualls with 15.

But the biggest shot belonged to Carpenter.

The Wildcats won't hit the water until they square off against Southwestern Conference rivals in Logan, Utah on the campus of Utah State on October 11.

When they jump back in the pool, Arizona will be aiming for the nation's top spot. If you ask former head coach Devlin, beating Michigan was only the beginning.

"We earned a lot of respect on a national level this weekend," he said.

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