LOS ANGELES, April 26. THE road to the NCAA women's national collegiate women's water polo championship begins today at USC's McDonald's Olympic Swim Stadium.
The home-team Trojans will host the second-annual Mountain Pacific Sports Federation 12-team tournament, featuring defending NCAA Champion UCLA and last year's runners-up, Stanford, in addition to SC, Cal and eight other West Coast schools.
The winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Final Four, also scheduled for USC the second weekend of next month (May 11-12).
Competition begins today with the finals set for Sunday afternoon.
Last season, Stanford won the MPSF title in Hawaii, but bowed to UCLA a couple of weeks later at home in the innagural NCAA Finals.
This season the Bruins (18-3) are top-ranked nationally in the latest American Water Polo Coaches' Assn. Top 20 poll. They'll have their work cut out for them, however, as co-No. 2-ranked Stanford (19-1) has thrice beaten UCLA. (USC is tied with the Cardinal for second in the polls.)
Stanford blasted the Bruins, 9-4, in mid-February in the finals of the Stanford Invitational, then made it two-for-two with a 6-5 overtime triumph a week later in the finals of Santa Barbara's Gaucho Invitational.
Adding insult to injury, Stanford made it a sweep of the women of Westwood with a 6-4 MPSF win the second Sunday of last month before a jam-packed, overflow crowd at the Bruins' Rec Center Pool.
The Bruins, Cardinal and Trojans all finished with identical 10-1 MPSF regular-season records. Stanford's only conference defeat was by USC, 7-6. UCLA defeated its crosstown foe, 9-8, at USC two weeks ago when the Trojans' goal that would have tied the game in regulation play was disallowed as it was ruled to have been made after time expired.
Stanford is seeded No. 1, USC second and the Bruins third. Seedings were determined by goal differental tiebreaker, and UCLA enters play today as No. 3 seed with a -1 goal difference. Stanford was seeded first due to its +1 goal difference and USC was seeded second with its 0 goal difference.
The Bruins' initial game will be this afternoon against the winner of the San Jose State/Pacific match-up. Stanford plays the winner of Hawaii-Santa
Stanford's leading scorer is last season's NCAA Player of the Year, Brenda Villa, who has scored a nation-leading 51 goals in 20 games. A sophomore, Villa averages 2.55 goals per game, has twice tallied four goals in a game and rifled home the winner against the Bruins in the third overtime perood of the Gaucho Invitational. She also scored in the fourth-quarter of the Cardinal win over the Bruins last month.
"If we're going to have a chance [to win] we've got to play better defense against Villa," says Bruin coach Adam Krikorian. "She's a world-class player who can take over a game just like that. She was a thorn in our side last year and this year she's only gotten better."
Stanford has outscored its opponents, 212-72 overall, and are converting 34 percent of their 6-on-5 advantages.
UCLA is averaging more than 11 goals per game (244 in 21) and is led by senior Olympian Coralie Simmons, whose 41 goals are tops on the team and No. 2 nationally behind Villa. She's backed by senior teammate Kelly Heucher, a member of Australia's Olympic team at Sydney who's scored 34 goals.
The Bruins also have two players who were members of the United States' gold medal-winning junior national team last year in Natalie Golda and Maureen Flanagan, who've tallied 24 and 16 goals, respectively. One other Bruin has averaged at least a goal a game and that's junior Robin Beauregard (21). She scored a key goal in last season's NCAA Finals.
Krikorian, who guided UCLA to the men's NCAA Championship in 1999 and again the following season, says he doesn't want to "sweat" making it into NCAAs
this year as he did last year when the Bruins lost the MPSF title to the Cardinal. "No more back doors. We want to win it all," he adds.
Stanford defeated UCLA at home last December to win the men's NCAA Championship in retiring coach Dante Dettamante's swansong on The Farm.
– Bill Bell