After transferring to UC San Diego in the fall of 2006, senior A.J. Kotanjian had an immediate impact on the Triton Men’s Water Polo team. His hard-nosed play earned him a spot in the starting lineup and he proceeded to rack up 56 goals, 13 assists and 29 steals while garnering second team All-Western Water Polo Assn. (WWPA) honors as UCSD won the WWPA and played in the NCAA Championships. After sitting out the 2007 campaign as a redshirt, Kotanjian is back in the pool and Head Coach Denny Harper expects him to be major force in 2008. "A.J.'s a very exciting, rugged, old school, no-nonsense kind of player," says UCSD Head Coach Denny Harper. "Sometimes he's almost too aggressive for his own good but he definitely brings great energy to our team.” With the season-opening Triton Invitational looming this weekend, the Whittier native took time to talk about his career and this fall’s prospects.Q—How difficult was it to sit out last season? What was the toughest part?
KOTANJIAN—It was incredibly difficult. It was the first time in about eight years that I was not able to compete in the fall. The toughest part about redshirting last year was having to sit on the sidelines. I wanted to get in and play at every game I attended.
Q—Were there any benefits from being on the sideline?
KOTANJIAN—Yes, being able to sit on the sidelines allowed me to observe things that I would never have been able to while in the pool. I was able to watch and learn from some of our opponents, pick up their tendencies and help our squad be more experienced. It also allowed me to concentrate more in the weight room and put on some extra weight for this upcoming season.
Q—What have been the highlights of training camp?
KOTANJIAN—Our beach workouts definitely stand out the most when I think of our training camp. Each day we visit a new beach and are given a different swim; whether it be swimming around Crystal Pier or swimming along the coast in Coronado, the swims always bring an exciting and intense competition. The La Jolla Cove swim was probably my favorite part of training camp. After running for a few minutes we were surprised by our alumni with a BBQ. After nearly a week of rigorous work, the BBQ really let us put our feet up and enjoy ourselves.
Q—What type of team do you envision the Tritons eventually becoming in 2008?
KOTANJIAN—After a rough year in 2007, I strongly believe that our team has the potential to return to championship form. Because of our lack of size, we all know that in order to win Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) and earn an appearance at NCAA Championship we are going to have to work harder and be stronger as a team than ever before. Our team is very committed to achieving its goals and working as a team to do so.
Q—You open the regular season with the annual Triton Invitational. What will the team be trying to accomplish this weekend?
KOTANJIAN—We will be trying to put together the pieces of a new team. Although we have all played together over the summer, everything changes when fall comes around. I look at this weekend one game at a time. We have the potential to win this tournament, yet we cannot overlook any of our opponents. We open against Redlands Saturday morning and are looking to make a statement that we are a strong team and prepared to turn some heads this season.
Q—You played two seasons at Whittier and then transferred to UCSD. What led to the change and has it proved to be a good move for you?
KOTANJIAN—There were a few reasons for the change. Team dedication was the most important. After my second year at Whittier, I realized I was not enjoying myself because there were too many people on the team who were not as dedicated to playing and raising the bar of Division III athletics.
As for the transfer to UCSD, it has been one of the greatest decisions I have ever made. I am now on a team where everyone looks out for everyone else and furthermore have dedicated themselves to becoming part of a championship team. It has also allowed me to live in America's greatest city.
Q—You are re-united this year with fellow senior Adi Jerkovic. What does he bring to the team and what do you enjoy most about playing on the same team with him?
KOTANJIAN—Adi brings tons of leadership and experience to the table. Two years ago Adi broke UCSD's career assist record in only his third year. Being a left hander in a sport dominated by right handers has allowed Adi to be one of the most powerful aspects of our team. The thing I most enjoy about playing with Adi is the fact that his knowledge of the game is so strong and skills so defined that I know if anyone on our team gets open and the ball is in Adi's hand, he has the ability to have an assist every time.
Q—What do you consider the strongest part of your game? What would you like to do better?
KOTANJIAN—The strongest parts of my game are my ability to get in to the two-meter position and wrestle with the biggest guys in collegiate water polo and also my knowledge of the game allows me to have a better understanding of when to counter attack or stay back on defense when it is needed. The weakest part of my game has got to be my endurance. I tend to have a difficult time getting up and down the pool after four periods of wrestling at two meters.
Q—Who are some of the other players fans should watch for in 2008?
KOTANJIAN—Everyone on the team should be watched because they all offer a different aspect to the game. Returning stars from last year include Daniel Garcia, Steven Donohoe, Chance Vermilyea, Peter Gresham, Sean Roberts and Sidd Menon. However this year we have added a few new faces, including swimmer turned polo player Kneif Lohse, redshirt freshman Matt Kerchner who we are hoping will have a standout year with his dominant size, and transfer Graham Saber should get a few looks this season. Our goalie play should produce some real competition as we have three goalies competing for playing time.
Q—What characteristics do you believe have made your coach, Denny Harper, so successful over such a long period of time?
KOTANJIAN—Coach Harper's long tenure here at UCSD and in the water polo world is probably the most important factors in his success. Nothing is more important than experience and knowledge of the game, which he has a lot of. Coach Harper is the kind of coach who pushes us to our limits everyday in order to make sure we are in the best possible shape. However, he also knows that a team cannot operate efficiently under a lot of stress and therefore tries to make practices fun at the same time.
Q—What did you think of the U.S. Men’s Water Polo Team’s performance at the recent Olympics? Do you think it will lead to an increase in American interest in the sport?
KOTANJIAN—It was amazing to watch, considering no one really expected the U.S. to medal. However, I do not think that it will lead to more interest in the sport in the U.S. based on the sole fact that there are already too many pro sports. The U.S. is dominated by baseball, basketball, football and hockey; even soccer has a hard time stirring interest in the U.S. We can only hope that their performance leads to more interest considering that collegiate water polo is already low in numbers as it is. Q—What made you start playing water polo? What’s made you keep playing? KOTANJIAN—I started swimming at the age of five, so I had a background in the aquatics world. When my older brother entered high school he decided to play water polo and his coach Tom MacKinlay knew that I was a good swimmer and asked that I try playing during the summer.
At that point I was going to start sixth grade and loved the idea of getting in the water and being able to wrestle people. I had a great time playing and eventually got really good. Having the swimming background gave me a speed advantage over a lot of opponents. In high school I quit swimming club and dedicated myself strictly to water polo and have loved it ever since.
Q—What can you tell us about your family?
KOTANJIAN—My parents Ann and Mark are still married, and work for a family owned and operated Rubbish company. Ironically, my father is an LMU graduate (UCSD’s primary conference rival). I have two brothers Nicholas, who is 26 and is trying to become a fire fighter, and Zachary, who is 17 and will be graduating high school this coming up year. Both competed in swimming and water polo. We have lived in Whittier CA my whole life.
Q—What kind of things do you like to do outside of the pool?
KOTANJIAN—Going to the beach is one of my favorite things. When I have free time and can get away from the pool, I ride my bike down to the beach. I love to body surf. In the winter I try to go snowboarding as much as possible. And when I have free time and some extra cash, Vegas always sounds good to me.
Q—You’re a political science major. Do you plan to graduate in June? What do you have planned post-graduation?
KOTANJIAN—Actually, I will be done with school in December and I have a bunch of things lined up. My first option is to go to Europe and try to play water polo professionally which would depend on whether or not I could make a team. If that doesn’t work out, I plan to come home and work for my father’s company for a few months. After that I eventually want to go to law school.
Previous Q&A Articles:
Peter Akman (Men's Soccer) August 21, 2008
Natasha Belak-Berger (Women's Soccer) August 15, 2008
Jake LaVieux (Men's Cross Country) August 8, 2008
Dr. Penny Rue (Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs) July 30, 2008
Michelle Torres (Women's Volleyball) July 15, 2008
Jon Pascale (Men's Soccer Head Coach) July 1, 2008
Julie Ertel (Athletics) June 16, 2008
Clint Allard (Men's Basketball) June 9, 2008
Jen Myers (Women's Crew) May 27, 2008
Casey Ryan (Men's Track and Field and Men's Basketball) May 21, 2008
Keith Noe (Baseball) May 13, 2008
Liz LaPlante (Women's Tennis Head Coach) April 30, 2008
Sydney Gstettenbauer (Women's Water Polo) April 22, 2008
Sarah Hendy (Women's Track and Field) April 17, 2008
Eric Leserman (Men's Volleyball) April 9, 2008
Danielle Lukk (Softball) April 4, 2008
Chris Franco (Baseball) March 24, 2008
Dan Perdew (Swimming) March 18, 2008
Evan Hsiao (Swimming) March 9, 2008
Eric Rubens (Men's Tennis) February 27, 2008
Melissa Ward (Softball) February 20, 2008
Cameron Sprowles (Fencing) February 13, 2008
Kim Hockett (Women's Water Polo) February 6, 2008
Trevor Decker (Baseball) January 31, 2008
Jordan Lawley (Men's Basketball) January 23, 2008
Jason Spangler (Men's Volleyball) January 5, 2008
Andrew Skewes (Men's Diving) December 26, 2007
Alexis Gaskin (Women's Basketball) December 17, 2007
Aubrey Panis (Women's Swimming) December 2, 2007
Andrew Hatch (Men's Basketball) November 26, 2007
Kevin Klein (Men's Cross Country) November 12, 2007
Kim Adams (Women's Volleyball) November 7, 2007
Ben Miller (Men's Water Polo) October 31, 2007
Alie Avina (Women's Soccer) October 19, 2007
Charity Elliott (Women's Basketball Head Coach) October 15, 2007
Jason Le (Men's Soccer ) October 3, 2007
Rebecca Bailey (Women's Volleyball) September 18, 2007