Senior Nick Alexander concluded a breakout season in 2015 by earning MVP honors at the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) Championship, guiding UC San Diego to a third consecutive conference title and a berth in the NCAA Championship. The southpaw from Clovis recorded 48 goals, second on the team to then-senior Chase Cockerill, led the Tritons with 64 assists (the fourth-best single-season total in UCSD history), and also racked up 44 steals. After a summer playing in the USA Water Polo National League, Alexander seems poised for even bigger things this fall. "Nick has developed so much as a water polo player, but also as a person," says UCSD associate head coach Matt Ustaszewski. "He's done a lot of different things in the leadership area, was a key figure in last spring's NCAA Division I referendum process, and is very active in his fraternity. He's had a very well-rounded college experience." With the annual Triton Invitational kicking off the new season on Sept. 3, the 21-year-old Alexander shared thoughts on last year's performance, head coach Denny Harper, and his team's outlook in 2016.
Q: After totaling a combined seven goals in your first two UC San Diego seasons, you exploded for 48 last fall. What factors played into the increased offense?
ALEXANDER: Well for one thing we had eight or nine seniors graduate the prior year, which freed up some of the playing time and allowed me as well as others to step up to the plate and help fill the shoes of those before us. I think some of it was also the drive and motivation to prove something to the coaching staff, as well as myself, that I'm not just the assist guy but also someone they can rely on in high-pressure situations. That, with the combined support from my team and a highly-competitive practice arena, made for a great year.
Q: You earned second-team All-WWPA honors for your regular-season play but were selected as MVP of the WWPA Championship tournament after UCSD won its third consecutive WWPA title in Colorado Springs last November. How satisfying was that recognition?
ALEXANDER: It was very satisfying, more so that we had won a third championship game that no one thought we would win, but to earn the distinction of WWPA tournament MVP was a huge cherry on top. I mean it sounds cliché but I couldn't have done it without my team. I was extremely honored to follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest UCSD water polo players who have come before me that have also received that award. At the same time, I was excited that I had done something noteworthy that will last a lifetime, and to have my hard work be recognized in that way, was an unforgettable feeling.
Q: You now have an opportunity to win a fourth straight conference championship, something that has never been done at UCSD. What would that mean to you and your teammates?
ALEXANDER: Honestly, it would mean the world to me to win a fourth straight WWPA title. Like you said, it has never been done before, and to go down as one of only two members (Andy Moore) from the 2013 team still in the program, I would have to say never losing a conference title in college would be one for the record books. But I'm not looking that far ahead just yet. There is a long and challenging road ahead of us this season, and before we start talking about a WWPA championship, we have to put in the work as well as come together as a team, especially with our huge group of freshmen. So yes, a WWPA final is the goal, but there are some smaller goals that need to be met on our road to the WWPA tournament first.
Q: Coming into 2016, what do you see as the strengths of your team and what do you think will be key to UCSD's hopes of winning another league title?
ALEXANDER: I believe our team has two key things this season that I see as strengths. First off, we have a lot of individual talent on our team. We all come from different programs, with a different set of skills to bring to the table, and that's just what we need. Every year we have younger guys stepping up to the plate, as well as different guys pushing the team as a whole to get better and reach new heights. I also think our team possesses a winning mentality. We all know the amount of work it takes to win a championship game, as well as what it feels like to do so. We remain calm in high-pressure situations, and we push each other to be better because we know what needs to be done to achieve our goal. Most importantly, we know how to win and lose gracefully and not only learn from our mistakes, but grow as individuals, which ultimately improves the quality of practice, as well as individual players themselves.
Q: This past off-season, you played in the USA Water Polo National League, which brings together top players from across the country at all levels. How valuable was that experience and what were some of the highlights?
ALEXANDER: Playing in the National League in its first year was one of the coolest things I could have been a part of post-season. It gave me the opportunity to play with people I would never have played with or even met for that matter, which was a tremendous help and learning tool for me. I learn by watching other players play, as well as how other coaches coach, and to be able to bring this back to my team and apply some of it to my own game is huge at this level of collegiate water polo. I was honored to have been asked to play in the National League, and I hope it grows to be even bigger and more inclusive, so others have an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than just their college team.
Q: You're a left-handed shooter, generally considered a beneficial commodity in the sport of water polo. How does being a southpaw work well in general and for you in particular?
ALEXANDER: I typically play the role of passing/assist guy, and it works out well being left-handed and being put in a position where I have the entire squad in front of me to pass to. Passing is my strong suit, and although I am still working on my weaker traits going into my fourth year of collegiate ball, I can always rest easy knowing that I can make the right pass at the right time that will hopefully result in something positive for our team. So yes, being left-handed is rare in water polo as in most sports, but I see it as more of an asset in the sense that it allows for more use of the pool. It's also a different look for goalies, and used for potential plays rather than just simply being able to use a different hand to control the ball with.
Q: Your coach, Denny Harper, is one of the more colorful figures in the collegiate water polo world. What's it like playing for him? How has he improved your game and what is the funniest thing you've ever heard him say?
ALEXANDER: That's a loaded question. Denny is great, a bit blunt and straightforward, but that's what you need if you want to get better and remain a competitive team. He is always good for a story or two when you are trying to delay the inevitable-practice-or not so great when your parking pass expired 20 minutes ago and he is telling you about some player he had back in 1986.
As for Denny pushing me and improving my game, all I can say is you have to see the big picture. There are times you might want to punch him knowing that the type of calls he is making in a scrimmage are completely wrong, or the random "teaching moments" he had with me as a freshman about not being able to pass the ball perfectly to Josh Stiling all 50 times he made me do it. But then there are the moments you're thanking him for helping you become the WWPA MVP, and knowing that he did all the things he did for those exact moments, makes all the struggle and hard times worth it.
Q: UC San Diego typically hosts some of the largest collegiate crowds on an annual basis. Talk about the experience of playing at night in front of a big home crowd at Canyonview?
ALEXANDER: You know, it seems as if one of these days I would get used to it all, but I never seem to fully do so. Having a huge crowd at our home games is electrifying. It makes you nervous, but in a good way. Knowing all these people support you and want to see you succeed is a great feeling. Playing in front of a packed house makes those goals all the more worth it, and ultimately gives us the edge over our opponents when the crowd gets really into it. I am so blessed and honored to get to play in front of the UCSD water polo fans, and I can't wait to do so again for my final season.
Q: Who is one player on your team that you're glad you don't have to face as an opponent?
ALEXANDER: Cole Martinez. That kid doesn't stop moving, and with him playing on offense the same side as I'm playing defense, it makes for a tiresome 30 seconds, and to have to go to offense the next possession, makes it almost impossible to give it your all knowing you will have to play defense on him again 30 seconds later.
Q: Did you follow the water polo action at the Rio Olympics? What do you think about the U.S. team? Any favorite players?
ALEXANDER: With the Olympics having come to a close, I can honestly say that the U.S. men have a long way to go if they want to be back in a gold medal game any time soon. But they were a very young team and with the next Olympics four years away, there is always hope. I have had the privilege of playing against most, if not all, of the players on the Olympic team, and I don't really have a favorite player. They all are talented in their own right, but I tend to focus on UCSD and how we play, and leave the national politicking to the big boys.
Q: As a communication major with a business minor, you're looking at a career in the corporate public relations or marketing world following graduation. If you were handling PR for the two main candidates in the upcoming presidential election, what kind of advice would you give each?
ALEXANDER: I've actually talked at length with several people about this very topic, and without going into much of the politics or the political system as a whole, I believe the media should be focusing more on policy and government-related issues and less on the spectacle of it all. As for the flip side, I believe the candidates should themselves say and do less incriminating things that the media can report on, and focus more on the important task at hand, which is running for office and representing the United States on an international level. Political views aside, I believe the office of President in our country should be a respected and honored one, and I don't believe either candidate is representing it to the best of their ability.
Q: You're a native of Clovis, in California's Central Valley. What is your hometown known for, and what are some of the highlights a visitor to Clovis might look for?
ALEXANDER: Well there isn't much, to be honest. It's a small, suburban town known for its competitive sports teams and high levels of education. If you were to visit Clovis, it would be because you had family there, you were stopping to get gas on your way up to Tahoe, or you didn't want to stay in Fresno for the night. But in all honesty, it is the best place for people who want to be an hour's drive to the snow or a two-hour drive to the beach, without the cost of living in either location. Yosemite's forest is less than a mile away, plus you always get the best fruits and vegetables California has to offer due to its close proximity to all the agriculture.
Q: You listed boating as one of your hobbies. What kind of "vessels" have you piloted? Any interesting experiences? Describe your dream boat?
ALEXANDER: My family has grown up in the water. Whether it be the pool or the lake, we are there. My family has owned jet skis, houseboats, speedboats, and wakeboarding/competitive boats, and I have had my fair share of being towed, driving, and relaxing on all of them. I guess my dream boat would be a Malibu Wakesetter, a small wakeboarding boat that has all the bells and whistles in order to have a good time.
Q: What is one thing you want to accomplish in the pool and out of the pool before your UC San Diego career is over?
ALEXANDER: In the pool, I would like to make it into the top three for single-season assists (65 and above), as well as see myself as more of an offensive threat this year, and of course, to win another WWPA title. Outside of the pool, I hope to graduate on time and make the most of this last year in college and really enjoy La Jolla for the last few months I'm here.
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