When does a conference championship mean more than an NCAA title? Maybe never, but it's a darn close second when you play water polo in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
Nine of the top 10 teams in the country will be competing for the MPSF title Saturday and Sunday at Long Beach's Belmont Plaza. When the NCAA tournament begins Nov. 26 in the same pool, as many as four of them will be left high and dry because of automatic berths awarded to other conference champions.
Five MPSF teams probably will be represented at the NCAAs and Irvine, ranked No. 5 in the country, needs a strong performance to keep its position.
"It's going to be intense," UCI senior driver Greg Hakim said. "There's a lot more pressure than in the NCAA tournament. It's sort of like the (baseball) playoffs; most of the pressure is in trying to get to the World Series."
The Anteaters (14-7) open play at 7 a.m. Saturday against sixth-seeded UCLA (12-7). The teams have split two games this season and the loser of this dawn showdown probably will have lost its chance at an NCAA berth.
"I've been coaching a long time, and I can tell you that 7 o'clock games are usually bizarre," said Coach Ted Newland, in his 28th season at Irvine. "People are out of sync, their biorhythms haven't started yet or whatever and strange things seem to happen.
"And this is a real toughie. If we beat UCLA, we'll be fine. If we don't, we're in big, big trouble. You get down into the losers' bracket and you're done."
Irvine has beaten No. 3 University of the Pacific and the Bruins in the last two weeks to solidify their No. 5 spot in the national rankings.
"We've been playing moderately well," Newland said, "but this game will probably come down to who's able to concentrate, who's going to keep their head together, and who gets the luck going in their direction. The way the ball bounces is a factor you can't control and these early-morning games are usually squirrelly."
Ouch Patrol: Senior Marc Hunt, who suffered a broken left hand against UCLA, is questionable for the MPSF tournament. It's not his shooting hand, but the fracture in the fourth metacarpal makes swimming and catching the ball a painful experience.
"He's going to the doctor (today), but we probably won't make a decision until Friday," Newland said. "If he was a Ping-Pong player, he'd be OK, but he can't move around in the water very well and playing defense on people, he's going to get it hit."
Hunt played water polo at Santa Maria Righetti High School, but he wasn't exactly a polished player when he showed up at Irvine.
"Marc is an excellent player, a very gifted player," Newland said. "But when he got here, he didn't have a clue what he was doing."
Apparently, Hunt has quite a few clues these days. He's Irvine's top goal-scorer this season with 49 points (including six two-point goals).
"If we don't have Marc, that's a big factor," Newland said. "He does a lot of our communication. He sort of runs the team when he's in there. And he's our best shooter."
Ouch Patrol II: Rod Baker is becoming the master of the improvisational basketball practice. Six players missed practice one day last week, thanks to a number of mostly minor injuries--Todd Whitehead (hamstring), Mark Odsather (calf), DeForrest Boyer (abdominal strain), Elzie Love (knee), Joe Hannon (hip flexor) and Khari Johnson (knee)--and Shaun Battle was sick.
"We just have to be flexible," Baker said, "and work with who's there. But it's not really an issue until they come back and we see where they are."
Starters for starters: Baker said if he had to play tonight, he would go with one of two lineups:
--Zuri Williams at point guard, Lloyd Mumford at off guard, Love at small forward, Jerome Avie at power forward and LaDay Smith at center.
--Mumford at point guard, Love at off guard, Battle at small forward, Avie at power forward and Smith at center.
Avie is a transfer from the College of Eastern Utah who originally signed a letter of intent with Houston and became available because he hadn't completed academic requirements by the time classes began at Houston. Baker signed him sight unseen, but he has seen enough in just a couple of weeks to include him on a list of probable starters.
"He's pretty good," Baker said, "and his enthusiasm is infectious. He's a joy to be around."
Just a guess: Oh, those mysterious Anteaters. They've got the preseason basketball prognosticators quite confused. The Sporting News has Irvine finishing sixth in the Big West. Petersen's College Basketball says seventh.
Baker hopes Street and Smith are both wrong . . . they have the Anteaters ninth.