London, Ont. – Banner season has one more stop before the fall semester wraps up and that stop is the WSRC Pool at Western University. Five squads will head to London to join the host Mustangs for the 2019 OUA Water Polo Championship and while a few familiar teams have found themselves ahead of the pack for some time, the full contingent has continued to grow stronger and more skilled over the years. So with a field as talented as ever ready to hit the pool from November 29 to December 1, the fall banner season is set to end with a bang.
With a well-established championship pedigree in tow, the Toronto Varsity Blues will set their sights on their 14th provincial banner in the last 19 years. Winners of the last three OUA finales, this weekend’s top seed is coming in on the heels of several strong matches, having gone a perfect 8-0 against OUA competition. En route to this spotless record, the defending champions outscored their opponents 105-21, which speaks volumes about their new-look, young roster.
With this relatively youthful group, the team will rely on the veteran presence of fourth-year utility Stefan Mitic (Markham, Ont.), as well as third-year standouts Andrei Velasevic (Toronto, Ont.), Harrison Young (Ottawa, Ont.), and Richard Laurie (Maple Ridge, B.C.) to lead the way this weekend, much like they have to this point in the schedule
During their winning stretch so far, the team’s closest match came against the Carleton Ravens, who have combined with Toronto to win the last 15 championships. When the two teams met at the Queen’s Invitational a few weeks back – something they have also done in seven of the last eight OUA gold medal matches – Toronto took home the win by an 8-6 margin and if the two were to meet again on the province’s biggest stage, another barn-burner could very well be in store.
Helping No. 2 Carleton closely compete with the Blues is a solid mix of veterans and young players that have come together and learned to play as a unit. A key part of that unit can be found in net, as Mike Nevins (Ottawa, Ont.) reprises his role between the pipes. Nevins is as clutch as they come for the black birds and manages to step up his game with key saves when it matters most.
Nevins’ play at the back end gives the team in front of him, including newcomer David Lapins, plenty of confidence. When it comes to Lapins, the former Canadian national team member currently doing his master’s in biology has proven to be one of the most dominant players in the conference, and perhaps more importantly, one of the best teammates. His positive spirit combined with his incredible work ethic and skill makes the Gatineau, Que. native one to watch this weekend, and after previously competing at numerous World Championships and Pan-American Games, Lapins will be backed by plenty of experience in his effort to help lead the Ravens to their first banner since 2015.
While the previous two teams have long battled for water polo supremacy on the provincial stage, the Queen’s Gaels threw their hat in the ring in a big way in the latest edition, taking home second place a year ago. While they will be coming in confident after their most recent result, they are also demonstrating their resilience, as the defending silver medalists also lost some key members. This has placed more responsibility on rookies and non-club players this year, but the team has gotten stronger every time they play and the group remains hungry for their fourth straight podium finish.
Among those who will help the third-seed make this push for top spot a reality is assistant captain and leading scorer Connor Crowe (Hamilton, Ont.). The fourth-year player has emerged as the game-day leader for the group, and after being more reserved in his first few years with the Gaels, Crowe has embraced this different role and is thriving therein. Joining Crowe is the team’s captain, Alexandre LeBlanc (Calgary, Alta.), who has put his clutch scoring on display time and time again for the Tricolour. He has mastered the critical position of centre forward since arriving at Queen’s with no experience in the sport and will be tasked with putting that greatly evolved skill and production on display in London.
Checking in as the fourth seed this weekend and doing battle with the host Mustangs in the quarterfinals on Friday, the McMaster Marauders will once again have their sights set on the podium. While the Hamilton squad hasn’t claimed the OUA banner since 2001, their bronze medal in 2018 suggests they are still very much in contention to be the class of the conference.
Like they have for the last several years, the Marauders will turn to OUA all-star Colin Colterjohn to spearhead their championship quest. The Hamilton, Ont. native, who formerly competed with Canada’s Youth National Team and the 2017 Canadian Summer Universiade Team, is now a graduate student in his sixth season with McMaster. Experience like that will be a key piece to the Marauders squad that is looking as ready as ever to bring home some hardware to the hammer.
For the fifth-ranked Mustangs to overcome the Maruaders, they’ll turn to a smaller lineup than in previous years, as they’ve rolled out a group of 11 student-athletes with a more focused approach in the water. The players have responded well to this more dedicated look and are in top shape entering the OUA finals this weekend. And according to head coach Bill Terzis, the team is primed to take another step forward.
“Western is ready. We are very fit and very focused. We plan to surpass our fifth-place position from last year and ultimately finish in the top three in front of our home crowd in our home pool.”
Among those who have reaped the benefits of this lean roster and will hope to make good on their team’s podium aspirations is third-year Victor Brancus (Toronto, Ont.), who has made a big impact on the team since day one. The former OUA all-star has proven to be graceful in the water, versatile in any game position, and manages to see the whole pool, all of which are skills he backs up with a wicked shot.
While Brancus has been a part of multiple OUA championships in his university career, Rick Vermeulen will suit up for his first as an exchange student from the Netherlands. The newcomer, who plays the sport at the highest level across the pond, has helped elevate the entire Mustangs team thanks to his quick thinking and explosive movements, making him a hard cover for opponents trying to contain him.
The final school participating in the fall finale will be the No. 6 Ottawa Gee-Gees, who will be looking to play the role of spoiler in this year’s event after falling victim to the increasingly deep and competitive field in recent years, and will have their first chance to do so in their quarterfinal clash with the Queen’s Gaels.
That quarterfinal will open the weekend’s festivities at 6:00pm on Friday. The semifinals will follow on Saturday, starting at 1:00pm, with the medal games will wrap up the championship on Sunday at 11:00am (bronze) and 1:00pm (gold), respectively.