When Coach Denny Harper lines up his 2006 UC San Diego Men’s Water Polo team for the first time at the 14-team Triton Invitational, he will be without a stellar class of 12 seniors that pushed UCSD to a 24-8 record and as high as fifth in the national rankings. One of the veterans Harper will be counting on to make the transition smooth is senior Jesse Casellini. Out of powerhouse Bellarmine Prep, the wiry, 6-4 Casellini has racked up 66 goals and 64 assists in his career and was recently named co-captain along with Joe Woodring. On the eve of the season opener, Casellini took time to talk about his team and the upcoming year.
Q-Roster-wise, there’s been significant turnover from 2005. How would you characterize the 2006 team and how will it be different from last year’s squad?
CASELLINI—To start, I am very excited with the talent and work ethic this team has. Compared to last year we are very inexperienced but I think the way this team has improved in just a few weeks of practice that is not going to be much of a problem as some people might think. We start the season with a couple of four-game tournaments so by the time we get into our dual games we will be moving at full throttle.
Q-How has your role changed, in the water and out?
CASELLINI—Being a captain this year I have spent a lot more time mentoring some of the younger guys, especially since we graduated that huge group last year. They have a lot of questions and a lot more communication is necessary when we are playing.
Q-Are there any veterans who have clearly come back better than last year? Are there any new players who you expect will have a big impact?
CASELLINI—Absolutely. Adi Jerkovic continues to get better and better every year and I expect him to establish himself as one of the best left-handed perimeter players in the country this year. Ty Lackey has also been working very hard to prepare for the load he is going to have to carry on his shoulders this year. Both of our transfers, AJ Kotanjian and Nestor Dordoni will have significant roles this year. Both are very talented players with a lot of drive and fit in very well.
Q-Is there any part of your game that you feel will be improved in 2006?
CASELLINI—I feel that defensively I will be a much better player. Since we are a young team mistakes are going to be made but I feel that as an older, experienced player I will be ready to match up with some of the better perimeter players on the opposing teams to help our younger guys concentrate on other tasks such as our counter attack.
Q-You’ve scored a number of key goals during your career. As a scorer, what’s going through your mind in the 35 seconds the team has the ball and the offense is working?
CASELLINI—I feel the best part of my game is when we are up on a 6 on 5 so I am trying as much as possible to drive and draw ejections on other players. With all the weapons we have this year I think I will be concentrating very hard on setting up other guys like Adi and Ty. AJ is also a natural goal scorer so I will be keeping an eye on what he is doing so he gets the ball when he needs it.
Q-Most people have never played water polo at anything close to collegiate caliber. What are some things the average fan would be surprised to know about the sport at this level?
CASELLINI—The amount of contact is what shocked me the most when I moved from high school to college. If people knew how much pushing, pulling, and grabbing there actually was they would be amazed. At this level if you are not wrestling with someone then you are doing something wrong.
Q-What are Denny Harper and Brad Kreutzkamp like as coaches? How has each helped you as a player?
CASELLINI—To be honest, I could not ask for a better coaching staff. Denny creates an amazing sense of team unity through his coaching style and that is what makes us a contender year in and year out. Brad was still a young coach when I came into this program so I have had the privilege to see him grow. What I really like about Brad is that he demands respect from his players. He pushes us very hard because he has an incredible desire to win and knows what it takes to do so.
Q-Run through a typical practice week for the Triton water polo team.
CASELLINI—Since we are a counter attack oriented team, conditioning is our main emphasis. We lift and swim in the mornings and come back in the afternoons for more. The afternoons are split between hard swimming and water polo drills. The last hour of practice is spent working on our offensive and defensive strategies. As we get closer to game days we focus a little less on the conditioning aspect and more on what we need to do to beat our upcoming opponents.
Q-What were some of the factors that led you to choose UC San Diego?
CASELLINI—I left a very close knit high school team and I knew I wanted something like that. UCSD was the perfect choice for me. This team spends so much time together. I don’t think I need to mention the location. All I will say is that La Jolla is beautiful. And of course academics was a huge factor. My parents push me very hard and they wanted me at a school that gives me what I want but challenges me as well. The combination of athletics and academics at UCSD is the perfect mix for any athlete that is also serious about school.
Q-Your hometown is Santa Clara, in Northern California. Outside of water polo, what are some of the things you enjoy about UCSD and San Diego in general?
CASELLINI—The weather and the beaches in the area are definitely my two favorite things. In the past year I have become an avid scuba diver and La Jolla is one of the best places off the California coast for that. The winters in Northern California are a little colder so I really enjoy the 75-degree February weather that we get.
Q-You’re on track to get a psychology degree with a minor in philosophy. Why did you make those choices and what do you hope to do with them?
CASELLINI—I chose psychology because I took an introductory class in high school and it really grabbed me. I was very interested and wanted to learn more. I also knew that I wanted to get more than a bachelor’s degree so I will hopefully be moving onto grad school following this school year.
Q-Are you going to graduate this year and what are your plans immediately after college?
CASELLINI—Yes, I will be graduating in the spring of this year. I would like to attend grad school and hopefully stay in San Diego to do that. There are a lot of things I want to do in my life so I could be anywhere in a year from now.
Q-What is the importance of this weekend’s tournament in the context of the season?
CASELLINI—Our season is like a marathon. I feel that if we get a good start it will give us the confidence we need for a good finish. I have high expectations for this team and I expect us to win all of our games this weekend but what is more important to me is that we play well as a team. This is a new group and we have not played very many games together so the most important thing to me is that we work together, communicate, and play fundamentally sound water polo.
Q-What would make 2006 a success in your eyes?
CASELLINI—My goal every single year is to win the WWPA championship. That is what this team is working hard to do and I feel we are headed in the right direction.