Minutes before Gaucho fans were cheering relentlessly for the current UCSB men’s water polo team as they hoped to see them knock off USC, they cheered and honored another men’s water polo team worthy of the applause.
In front of a sold out crowd, UC Santa Barbara recognized the 1979 UCSB men’s water polo team that captured the university’s first Div. I NCAA Championships after defeating UCLA in the title game, 11-3.
It remains just one of two NCAA titles UCSB had celebrated, the other being the men’s soccer team in 2006 which also beat UCLA in the championship game coincidentally, 2-1.
“The university really went out of its way to make us feel special. Friday night they had a great reception for us down at the Funk Zone and they pulled out the red carpet for us at the soccer game last night and obviously today,” Greg Boyer, a former setter for the men’s water polo team said.
Boyer was one of nine seniors on the championship team alongside co-captain and great friend, John Debrott.
Many might have expected that this was the first time a majority of the former team had seen each other since the championship game, but in fact, much of the team has remained in constant contact in the past 40 years.
In fact, the team has stayed in touch doing what they loved doing when they were in their twenties: playing water polo.
“Every other year there is a FINA Masters water polo tournament and we always enter. We have won about 80 percent of the time and if not we always make it to the medal rounds,” Boyer said.
About nine core members from the championship team have continued competing in master’s tournaments throughout the country and even all over the world.
The moment the guys were old enough to play in the second-ever Master’s National Tournament back in 1989, they signed up and never looked back.
Much like in 1979, many of the former UCSB water polo players dominate at the Master’s level.
“We have four gold medals in World Masters and in Masters National we have about 27,” Debrott said.
Just two years ago, Debrott, Boyer and other close members were together to win the FINA World Masters in Budapest for the 55-and-over group.
“It is a good excuse to get together and have a great time, but then when we get in the water we do want to play hard. But honestly, we don’t need an excuse. We are good friends, we email, we text and with modern communication, there is no excuse to not be contacting each other,” Debrott said.
And even though a lot of the core members do stay in touch, both Debrott and Boyer noted how nice it was to see a lot of the guys that they haven’t seen in the last 40 years on Sunday.
“You see each other but not as much as you’d like to though so there is always a reason to get together and see each other and this was a great one,” Boyer said.
“It is great because you just start talking to guys and it feels like no time has passed,” Debrott said.
Even former head coach Pete Snyder talked about how fun it was to see everyone on the team.
“I usually see them around water polo but beyond that not too much so it is nice when they all come to an event like today so we can all enjoy being around each other,” Snyder said.
“We certainly hope there are more championships to celebrate in the future but these guys love being together and to be recognized is an honor.”
Much of the talk throughout the weekend was focused on that 1979 season.
In 1979, Boyer and others knew that the senior depth on the team would be so good that they could make a run to a national championship.
“We had not won anything until then and we were just focused on that,” Boyer said.
But despite the focus being on winning, Debrott recalled the common phrase, “Gauchoke.”
The term came about because, in 1974, the UCSB men’s volleyball team was heavily favored to win the national title, especially considering the match was held at Rob Gym, the Gauchos’ home court.
Instead, UCSB lost in five sets to the Bruins.
The next season, UCSB suffered the same fate against UCLA.
So because of that, it was sort of a curse that UCSB was destined to never win a championship. It certainly didn’t help that in 1977, the men’s water polo team lost by one goal to Stanford in the NCAA semifinals, something that was in the 1979 team’s mind all season.
“We didn’t buy into that. We had been determined all season to dispel that name. We wanted to kill it and we did,” Debrott said.
In the 1979 season, despite being arguably the best team in the country, UCSB did not capture the No. 1 seed, something that angered them.
UCSB went on to beat Stanford in the semifinal and then had the opportunity to play UCLA.
“I was nervously confident. My adrenaline was flowing and I felt like I could run on water,” Boyer said.
Before the match, Snyder recalled how the team was forced into a small, cramped room waiting there until game time.
“They didn’t say anything. They didn’t gripe. They just were quiet and were focused and I remember thinking ‘wow, these guys are really going to play together.’ For me, there is always a level of uncertainty as a coach but I knew if we just played to our capability it would be a good day,” Snyder said.
UCSB was expecting a close match, but the Gauchos “came in like gangbusters” and beat the Bruins by eight goals.
“I consider myself very fortunate. We put in a lot of work and had a great foundation of great players. There is so much work to get there because we didn’t get all the best guys, but they all put in the work and a national championship was the icing on the cake,” Snyder said.
Boyer had five goals in that game and Debrott added a couple as well, but they really give a lot of credit to that season to goalkeeper Craig Wilson.
Wilson, a three-time Olympian, was “head and shoulders the best goalie in the country.”
“We could not even score off of him. It gave us such confidence that we could just focus on the offense,” Boyer said.
“And he ended up being the best goalie in the world,” Debrott said.
Wilson also plays with Boyer and Debrott in the Master’s tournaments but did miss the 2017 win.
And despite being only one of two UCSB national champions, Boyer said he wished the school had hundreds of championships.
“We could have the first one but I’d love to see everyone win,” Boyer said.
In fact, back when the men’s soccer team won in 2006, the guys were extremely happy.
“We were super bummed when they didn’t win a couple of years earlier and then in 2006, we were there man. We were huge fans,” Debrott said.
“We hope we can get another, maybe even our water polo team this year and hopefully it isn’t like a 40-year thing. We need some more.”
The two former national champions also noted how amazing it is that UCSB and Isla Vista in general still look the same and have the same feeling.
“I love it here. I have been here hundreds of times and just think it is great,” Boyer said.
“Back in the day in the 70s it still seemed like today. It felt like nothing has changed. The game was great, the crowd was into it and it gave me chills like I was 20 years old again.”
Snyder himself hoped this is not the last time that everyone can try to get together.
“I usually don’t stay awake this long, but when they are back it feels great. Knock on wood everybody is healthy and stays healthy,” Snyder said.
“These guys have their own family now and it’s great to hear their stories. Sometimes they are the same stories but sometimes there are some new ones and it is a thrill to have them here and us together.”