After a solid freshman season, lanky junior Josh Stiling erupted for 36 goals as a sophomore in 2011, helping the UC San Diego Men's Water Polo team to its 15th Western Water Polo Assn. (WWPA) championship and a trip to the NCAA Final Four. With five of seven starters back from that squad, Stiling and the Tritons are looking for an encore this fall. On the eve of the 2012 season, the Oregon native took time to look back at last year, talk about how he got to UCSD and what would make his junior year a success.
Q-Oregon to La Jolla is not one of the typical collegiate water polo pipelines. How did you end up at UC San Diego out of Southridge High School in Beaverton, OR?
STILING-I had done pretty well in Oregon water polo and after joining the local club and playing in tournaments down in California I thought I had a good shot at playing in college. A year previous I had the opportunity to see a good friend of mine get recruited to UC Irvine so I knew if I worked hard I could eventually get to the same level that he was playing. I sent emails out to several coaches my senior year and with a little help from my dad, who was a friend of Denny's (Harper) from his college days, I got in contact with Usha (Matt Ustaszewski) and went on a recruiting trip to UC San Diego. Afterwards I fell in love with the school and I knew it was where I wanted to go.
Q-How would you describe the caliber of high school polo in Oregon and what were the major adjustments you faced coming into UC San Diego?
STILING-The caliber of high school polo in Oregon is definitely a couple steps lower than what I've experienced in college at UCSD. One of the reasons being that water polo is not a very big sport in Oregon and only the big high schools have teams. Once I got to college I definitely had to adjust my level of intensity to match the guys I was playing against, and I had to work a lot harder to make things I did in high school happen at the collegiate level.
Q-Where do you feel you made the biggest strides between your freshman and sophomore seasons and where do you hope to step up most significantly in 2012?
STILING-From my freshman to sophomore year I'd say my biggest strides were in my level of shooting and how much bigger I got. From my first to second year I gained a lot of weight and thought I got significantly stronger thanks to the amount of work we did in the weight room over the off season. This coming season I've made it one of my goals to help fill the void that Graham Saber left on offense and be a major scoring threat from the perimeter.
Q-This year's team brings back a solid core from the 2011 WWPA championship squad but loses four-year starting goalie David Morton and leading scorer Graham Saber? How do you see those gaps being filled and how do you think this season's team will differ from that one?
STILING-Replacing Dave Morton has been one of the main concerns we've had since the 2011 season but in my opinion Cameron Ravanbach and Nick Michels have done a great job in stepping up over the spring and summer and have already proven invaluable in our first three scrimmages at UCI. Graham was a huge contributor to our success as a team last year, and replacing him is certainly a tall order but as I said above I've made it one of my goals to help fill the role he left on offense.
Q-Last year's WWPA win put UCSD in the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2006. What was that weekend like and how did the two games in that tournament differ from others during the season?
STILING-Well, for starters winning the WWPA title for the first time since 2006 was an amazing experience and being part of the legacy of teams who accomplished that feat was pretty cool. The weekend of NCAA's was an incredible experience that our team is working hard to get back to this year.
But the two games we played at that stage had a much different feel and importance to them than any game I'd ever played up to that point. I was a lot more jittery and excited before those games and once you're playing there are about 2-3,000 people watching you play, which is a really cool experience but at the same time it can be a little nerve-racking.
Q-How do you feel that experience will help this year's team?
STILING-The experience we got last year winning a WWPA title and competing in the Final Four was invaluable and has definitely helped our team focus on what we need to do to get back to the Final Four and be successful once we get to that point.
Q-At 6-foot-4, you're the tallest player on UCSD's roster. What type of advantage does height provide in water polo?
STILING-I wouldn't say the tallest man on the roster, I'd give that title to either Michels or newcomer Brian Roach, but my height is a factor I like to take advantage of especially when I'm shooting or playing defense. It's much easier to shoot around or above a shorter defender and on defense it can be a major advantage when playing in the passing lanes or shot blocking.
Q-You were second on the team with 36 goals last year. Is there a progression from shooter to scorer in water polo? If so, where would you put yourself?
STILING-There is a definite progression from being a shooter to scorer, the difference being the ability to put the ball in the goal. Since my freshman year I believe I've steadily progressed to a point where I'm no longer just throwing the ball at the cage but rather every time I shoot I'm being smart about where I shoot it and what kind of shot it is. I'd say a scorer is someone who has the ability to score in a variety of situations and I believe over the past three years I've made a definite progression towards being a scorer.
Q-Were you able to watch any of the water polo play at this summer's Olympic Games in London? What were your impressions and how does that game differ from the collegiate version?
STILING-Yes, I was able to see many of the polo games in London and was really impressed to see teams like Croatia and Serbia play. The game at the Olympic level is a lot more physical and the guys playing at that level have such an amazing game awareness and always know exactly what's going on around them. The collegiate version definitely touches on the physicality aspect of the game but I think the game awareness at the Olympics is on an entirely different level.
Q-What other sports did you play when you were younger and were there any Olympic sports (outside of polo) that you think you might like to take a shot at? Why?
STILING-Before I started playing water polo sophomore year I played baseball pretty much year-round. I would be working out in the fall and winter on my pitching and strength until my junior year in high school where I decided to play water polo year-round. I also played basketball until sophomore year of high school but was never very serious about the sport. Besides water polo I don't think there were any other sports that I could ever attempt to play at the Olympic level.
Q-How would you describe the on-deck styles of Head Coach Denny Harper and assistant coach Matt Ustaszewski? How has each affected your game?
STILING-Denny brings a lot of intensity and experience while Usha brings a more laid back creative insight to practice every day. Both Denny and Usha have pushed me since I was a freshman to be a greater offensive threat and it has without a doubt helped me become a better player and a more confident shooter. Without their help and direction over the past few years I would not be the player that I am today.
Q-Who are a couple of athletes that you admire?
STILING-Michael Phelps is definitely an inspiration. Watching someone dominate in their sport is something that is really cool. Tony Azevedo, captain of the U.S. Men's Water Polo team, is also a guy I really admire and enjoy watching play. His ability to shoot from the perimeter is insanely good and is a player I try to model some parts of my own game after.
Q-On your team, which players would best fit the descriptions of "Mr. Intensity-Genius-Comedian and Mr. Clutch?"
STILING- I'd have to go with John Butler for Mr. Intensity. John is very passionate about water polo and every day in practice he was always bringing a high level of intensity and physicality. Brian Donohoe obviously gets the genius award since he was awarded Capitol One All-American Academic honors for the 2011 season, something that no other water polo player in the country can say. Comedian could probably go to several different people but I'd have to go with Jack Bernstein. Jack is one of our new players and since he's been on the team his confident and goofy demeanor has provided a lot of needed comic relief. For Mr. Clutch I'd go with David Higginson. His role last year was mainly a facilitator and driver but whenever he needed to score or make a defensive stop he was a guy you could count on.
Q-Compare your hometown with La Jolla. What are your favorite aspects of each?
STILING-Well La Jolla has a lot nicer weather year round than Beaverton. During the winters it would rain 70 to 80% of the time back home so it's nice to get away from that. But my favorite part of my hometown is that all my friends and family are back there, and I always enjoy going home a lot because I only get back home 3-4 times a year so I think I cherish the time back home a lot more.
Q-You're a chemical engineering major. What led to that choice and what do you hope to do with it?
STILING-I was good at math in high school and thought chemistry was pretty interesting so I thought chemical engineering would be a good choice for me. As of right now I'm very interested in the energy field and specifically nuclear energy, so maybe something pertaining to that after I graduate.
Q-Personally, what would make 2012 a successful season for you?
STILING-I'd say winning WWPA's again and getting another shot at NCAA's all the while making major contributions on the scoreboard would make a successful season for me.
Q-How would you handicap your team's chances to return to the NCAA Championships and what needs to happen between now and mid-November to make it a reality?
STILING-Lots of hard work and focus. We're not going to reach our goal of winning another WWPA title if we don't dedicate each and every practice to becoming a better team.
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