Tournament shifts to East Coast
Olympic medalists, deep-rooted rivals collide in Boston
In a field of eight squads vying for the 2013 NC Women’s Water Polo Championship beginning Friday at Harvard's Blodgett Pool in Boston, two-time defending national champion Stanford will have most eyes peering its way.
Battling the Cardinal for attention will be 2012 runner-up and top-seeded Southern California. The Trojans enter the postseason with a 24-1 record, with their only loss coming at the hands of second-seeded Stanford (27-2) on April 13.
The Women of Troy avenged their lone defeat with an 11-7 triumph against Stanford in the title game of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) championship tournament.
Heading into the NCAA tournament, USC and Stanford are understandably the heavy favorites to make it all the way to the national title game. The two squads feature a combined five Olympians from the 2012 London Olympics. Stanford’s trio of Melissa Seidemann, Maggie Steffens and Annika Dries were members of the gold-medal-winning U.S. team, while USC’s Anni Espar captured a silver medal with Spain and Flora Bolonyai finished one place short of the podium with Hungary.
The veteran Trojans are making their 10th consecutive appearance at the NCAAs, while Stanford is the only team in the country to have clinched a berth in the tournament 14 years in a row.
USC's deep, experienced roster is comprised of six freshmen, four sophomores, seven juniors and six seniors. The Trojans are also led by the father-daughter duo of head coach Jovan Vivac and sophomore driver Monica Vivac. Jovan, fresh off being named MPSF Coach of Year, is in pursuit of his 12th overall national championship (eight with USC men and three with USC women). Meanwhile, Monica’s team-leading 71 goals helped her garner the MPSF Player of the Year honor in just her second season.
If the Women of Troy were to be crowned champions on Sunday, it would mark the fourth time in which the USC men and women have swept the national championships in their respective sports (1998-99, 2003-04, 2009-10).
With all of the Trojans’ recent success, it is hard to pinpoint any weaknesses heading into the postseason. However, since the 2009-10 season, USC has gone just 4-10 against Stanford, including a 1-2 mark in NCAA tournament action.
Head coach John Tanner’s Stanford squad currently boasts arguably the nation’s top offense and defense. The Cardinal is allowing an average of 4.52 goals per game, while finding the back of the net 13.03 times per contest.
Preparing for the tough task of facing USC in the first round is back-to-back Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) champion and eighth-seeded Pomona-Pitzer (18-16). Meanwhile, three-peat Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) champion and seventh-seeded Iona (21-8) readies to match up against Stanford.
After a tough stretch in the latter parts of March, head coach Alex Rodriguez’s young Pomona-Pitzer squad shook off a six-game losing skid and rattled off nine wins in its final 10 games.
With the majority of the Sagehens’ players consisting of underclassmen, 96.7 percent of their goals were scored by either freshmen or sophomores this season. Pomona-Pitzer’s lone senior, goalkeeper Sarah Tuggy, is making her third trip to the NCAAs.
“Last year, [we] had eight freshmen and several other first-time NCAA participants. We were just happy to be [in the tournament],” Rodriguez said. “I think this year, we know what to expect in the first round against an opponent like USC and the rest of the tournament [field].”
Hoping to also have more success in this year’s tournament will be the Gaels of Iona. Making its program’s third NCAA tournament appearance, all in a row, Iona closed out its regular season on a 12-2 run. The Gaels feature one of the nation’s best scorers in Amy Olsen. She averaged 3.5 goals per game en route to a 91-goal outburst this season. Olsen helped the high-scoring Iona offense net 10 or more goals in all but four games this season.
In the next branch of competition, third-seeded UCLA (26-6) gets set to take on sixth-seeded Princeton (26-5).
The Bruins, women’s water polo’s most successful team, are making their ninth consecutive voyage to the NCAA tournament. UCLA’s program leads the nation in championship trophies (7) and is second in the country in tournament appearances (12). The Bruins are a combined 26-4 in tournament play and strung together five consecutive titles from 2005-09 under head coach Adam Krikorian.
Now under the tutelage of head coach Brandon Brooks, UCLA looks to get back to its championship course after finishing third in the MPSF this year. The Bruins went 26-1 against opponents not named USC or Stanford this season. UCLA went a combined 0-5 versus the aforementioned.
”[We] will win the championship if we are able to play our best in our biggest games,” Brooks said. “We will have to show great poise [during] our 6-on-5 and 5-on-6s. [Additionally], we will have to play fantastic defense.”
Lined up across from UCLA will be two-time defending Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) champion Princeton. Making just its second tournament trip in program history, the Tigers will have their hands full against a Bruins program they have never beaten (0-5).
“Princeton is a tough opponent to face in the first round and we will not take them lightly,” Brooks said. “At this point in the season there are only tough teams left and we are excited about the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament.”
The Tigers are led by standout freshman goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson. She has caught the attention of many teams and coaches around the country in just her first season between the pipes.
“[Princeton has] many high-level recruits who are now excelling at the collegiate level. Ashleigh Johnson is one of the best goalies in the country,” Brooks said.
In the final matchup of the single-elimination tournament, Big West champion and fourth-seeded Hawaii (21-9) takes on Western Water Polo Association winner and fifth-seeded UC San Diego (25-13).
Making its first NCAA tournament trip since 2009, Hawaii looks to build off of its dramatic double-overtime victory against UC Irvine in the Big West title game when its faces the Tritons in first-round play.
Highlighted by the play of its program’s all-time leading scorer Monika Eggens, the Rainbows aim to finish better than their previous fourth-place finishes in each of their previous three NCAA tournament appearances. This season, Eggens recorded 93 goals and became the first Hawaii player to be named Big West Player of the Year.
“We are excited about playing [UC San Diego] in the first round,” Hawaii head coach Maureen Cole said. “They are a good team that plays with a lot of energy and [we] expect it to be the exciting game that most 4/5 matchups at the tournament have been.”
UC San Diego comes into the game having won 11 of its past 12 games. Facing Hawaii for the second time this season, the Tritons hope to avenge its 9-6 loss from March 30. Heading into Friday’s battle, the Rainbows hold a 16-2 all-time edge against the Tritons.
The NCAA tournament gets under way in the New England area for the first time with quarterfinals games beginning Friday at 1:45 p.m. ET. Second-round matches and consolation play resumes Saturday. Action concludes Sunday with the national championship game, preceded by the third-, fifth- and seventh-place contests.