La Jolla, California - Sam Thompson has been waiting for this opportunity. The University of California San Diego redshirt junior goalkeeper may officially be a reserve, but didn't play anything like a backup during the GCC vs. WWPA Challenge Cup last weekend. An Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches (ACWPC) Division II First-Team All-American while starting all 25 games last season, Thompson was a standout in victories against No. 10 UC Irvine and No. 8 Pepperdine on Sept. 8.

Thompson tallied 23 saves, three steals and an assist during the two wins while regular starter Jack Turner is away from the team competing for Team USA at the FINA World Cup. The two victories were Thompson's first two starts of the season.

"I understand I have to wait my turn, but it's nice to have this opportunity," Thompson said prior to Tuesday's practice. "(Turner) is gone so I had to step in as the No. 2 goalie, and I was there for my team. (My teammates) helped me out in front and I helped them out in the cage. Obviously, it was super sweet to beat two top-10 teams."

Although Tritons head coach Denny Harper is well aware of Thompson's talent, he acknowledged being a backup isn't an ideal situation for a goalkeeper.

"It's not an easy situation being a backup anything," said Harper. "(Thompson) did an exceptional job, and quite honestly, exceeded our expectations.

"He was completely solid in the cage. The year he had last year is a lot of experience he can grow off of."

Thompson said he has focused on staying warmed up and ready during games he hasn't started this season. Heading into two road contests this week against Cal Lutheran and No. 7 UC Santa Barbara, the Villa Park native believes defense has been the key to the Tritons' early-season success.

"The difference was defense (against UC Irvine)," he said. "Obviously I'm biased because I'm a defensive guy, but I know offensively we can do what we need to do. We just need to stop (the opposition) defensively from doing what they need to do."

Harper believes this week's games present a good challenge, especially playing at UC Santa Barbara on Thursday beginning at noon.

"It's fun to play there but it's hard," said Harper. "Historically, it's one of our top-3 toughest places to play. It's a tough crowd and it's always been a really strong program.

"It's really hard to win there. But we're going to go in there and see what we've got cooking this time."

• Overall: 5-1
• WWPA: 0-0
• Home: 3-1
• Road: 1-0
• Neutral: 1-0
• Ranking (CWPA): 12
• Against Ranked Teams: 4-1
• Current Streak: Won 4

Game 1
vs. Cal Lutheran (0-0, 0-0 SCIAC)
Wednesday, Sept. 12 • 2 p.m.
Samuelson Aquatics Center• Thousand Oaks
Live Stats

Game 2
vs. UC Santa Barbara (7-1, 0-0 GCC)
Thursday, Sept. 13 • 12 p.m.
Campus Pool• Santa Barbara
Live Stats

UC San Diego returns six seniors and welcomes seven newcomers, six of which are freshmen. Eight of the team's nine-leading scorers from 2017 are back on campus, led by top scorer and ACWPC All-American Connor Turnbow-Lindenstadt. In addition, redshirt junior goalkeeper Jack Turner rejoins the Tritons after missing the entire 2017 season due to injury. Meanwhile, junior Skyler Munatones, senior Alessandro Valania, junior Cooper Milton, senior captain Kevin Asplund, junior Noah Carniglia, sophomore Kacper Langiewicz, senior Carson Ivancovich, redshirt sophomore Jack Ranj and redshirt junior goalkeeper Sam Thompson remain from last season's squad, while senior captain Cole Martinez and junior transfer Myles Martinezare also expected to have a big role.

Twenty-six of the 29 Tritons on the roster are California natives, with the exception of junior Alessandro Valania from Savona, Italy as well as freshmen brothers Gonzalo Rivera and Jorge Rivera from Madrid, Spain. Local products include Kacper Langiewicz (San Marcos/Mission Hills HS), Cooper Milton (San Diego/Cathedral Catholic HS), Cole Martinez (San Diego/La Jolla HS), Myles Martinez (San Diego/La Jolla HS), Collin Sullivan(Escondido/San Pasqual HS), Jack Ranj (San Diego/Westview HS), Konstantin Karlov (San Diego/Torrey Pines HS) and Bennett Kienast (Carlsbad/Carlsbad HS).

UC San Diego finished the 2017 season at 11-14 overall, highlighted by a runner-up performance in the WWPA Tournament. The Tritons, the tournament's No. 2 seed with a 6-1 regular-season league record, defeated Santa Clara and California Baptist to advance to the WWPA Championship game against UC Davis. UC San Diego fought hard against No. 8-ranked UC Davis, but ultimately fell by a score of 9-6.

In 2017, the Tritons won nine games against teams either ranked or receiving votes in the Collegiate Water Polo Association Top-20 poll throughout the course of the season. UC San Diego was ranked as high as No. 12 nationally and faced a total of 11 teams ranked in the top-10.

Head coach Denny Harper was named the Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches (ACWPC) Division II Coach of the Year, while senior Arman Momdzhyan was tabbed Player of the Year. In addition, goalkeeper Sam Thompson and utility Connor Turnbow-Lindenstadt each earned All-America accolades.

• Preseason:  No. 12
• Sept. 5: No. 12

The UC San Diego men's water polo team was predicted to finish second in the 2018 Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) standings according to a preseason poll of the league's coaches. It is the second-consecutive season UC San Diego was picked to finish second.

1.  UC Davis, 49 points (7 first-place votes) 
2.  UC San Diego, 42 (1) 
T-3.  Cal Baptist, 34 
T-3.  Loyola Marymount, 34 
5.  Air Force, 22 
6.  Santa Clara, 20 
7.  Concordia, 16 
8.  Fresno Pacific, 7

• Overall: 0-0
• SCIAC: 0-0
• Home: 0-0
• Road: 0-0
• Neutral: 0-0
• Current Streak: -
• National Ranking: 8 (Division III)

UC San Diego is 10-0 all-time against Cal Lutheran, with the Tritons earning an 18-6 victory in the last meeting in 2016. 

• Overall: 7-1
• GCC: 0-0
• Home: 0-0
• Road: 1-0
• Neutral: 6-1
• Current Streak: Won 4 
• National Ranking: 7

UC San Diego is 18-46 all-time against UC Santa Barbara. The two teams last met in 2016, when the Tritons suffered a narrow road loss to the Gauchos, 11-9. 

UC San Diego head coach Denny Harper is in his 39th season leading the Tritons with a career record of 6643-478-4 (.576). An 18-time WWPA Coach of the Year and 15-time ACWPC National Coach of the Year honoree, Harper has led the Tritons to 18 WWPA titles and 14 appearances in the NCAA Championship. Last season, he was named the ACWPC Division II Coach of the Year for the seventh-straight year.

Following this week's action, the Tritons return home to play host to Long Beach State on Sept. 19 before opening WWPA play at home against Fresno Pacific on Sept. 22.