It has been 24 years since the Long Beach State men’s water polo team made the NCAA tournament, but that soon may change.
The team announced that it will leave the ultra-competitive Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and join the newly-formed Golden Coast Conference for men’s water polo starting in 2016.
“The switch to the Golden Coast allows us an opportunity to compete for an additional automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament,” LBSU media relations director Roger Kirk said. “It also stands to think that the new conference will be more competitive top to bottom.”
The 49ers are one of six former MPSF teams that will leave the conference and become charter members in the GCC. Pepperdine, San Jose State, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and University of Pacific will join LBSU.
The conference was originally formed for women’s water polo in 2014 when the six Big West teams left MPSF, Kirk said.
One major factor that led to the creation of the GCC was the fierce competition from the four PAC-12 teams, California, Stanford, USC and UCLA, that left their conference and joined the MPSF in the early 1990s.
Competing against GCC opponents might bring better results than the 49ers had against MPSF opponents. LBSU’s all-time record in MPSF play is 50-153.
On the other hand, the 49ers were one win away from making the big dance in 2014. That season, LBSU finished fourth in the conference with a 7-3 MPSF record and advanced all the way to the tournament final. LBSU came up short of making the NCAA tournament, falling to Stanford 9-8.
Gavin Arroyo, 49er head coach, knows how difficult it is to compete with the PAC-12 teams in the MPSF. Arroyo was an All-American at California in the early 1990s and led the Golden Bears to three straight NCAA championships.
Arroyo said that most players want to go to those PAC-12 schools because of the notoriety that goes along with attending a school like USC or Stanford.
“The majority of talent want that type of experience,” Arroyo said. “They’re all great schools, but that gives them a big advantage.”
In addition, Arroyo said that the majority of water polo players are from Southern California. As a result, they are exposed to schools like USC or UCLA because they are marketed more often than smaller schools like LBSU.
“If you walk into the 7-11 across from LBSU, there’s more USC and UCLA stuff than there is LBSU,” Arroyo said. “That’s the way it’s been in the past and the athletic department is trying to change that. It’s pretty simple stuff but it’s logical as to why they have dominated over the past 20 years.”
Now the 49ers won’t have to compete with those PAC-12 schools in order to get into the NCAA tournament. Arroyo said that not only is the move to the Golden Coast a win for LBSU, but it’s also a win for the sport of water polo.
“The more conferences, the more competition, the more parity,” Arroyo said. “It’s a great move for the sport. The NCAA has to recognize that we’re a growing sport and not on the decline.”
Although the NCAA is still in flux in sorting out how a team will get an automatic qualifying spot into the tournament, Arroyo said that it is only two years away from becoming official.
With a brass of young and experienced players returning next season, LBSU has a legitimate shot of making the tournament in years to come.
“Absolutely, [changing conferences] definitely helps us,” Arroyo said. “If we have to upset three PAC-12 schools in a row, that is probably not going to happen. You get a better shot of having the stars align better than if we go through the current system.”
There will be five weeks of conference play on Fridays, followed by an inaugural conference tournament hosted by Pacific.