LOS ANGELES, May 11. UCLA's women's water polo team, No. 1 nationally with a 21-3 record and defending NCAA Champs, opens defense of its crown this afternoon with a semifinal match against Westside neighbor Loyola-Marymount University (20-7)– ranked seventh.
In the other semifinal, last year's runners-up, No. 2-ranked Stanford (21-2), plays Eastern champ University of Michigan (25-11).
Action begins at 3:30 PM PDT on the campus of USC in the McDonald's Olympic Swim Stadium diving well. The winnners will advance to Sunday's championship match, also beginning at 5 PM, which follows the third-place
game beginning at 3:30.
UCLA won the inaugural NCAA Championship last year with a come-from-behind 5-4 victory over Stanford's Cardinal at the latter's new Avery Aquatic Center Pool. UCLA advanced into last year's finals with an
11-1 thrashing of LMU, but Lions' coach John Loughran believes his team's experience from last season makes them a much tougher team in 2002.
"Last year we were just thrilled to get in the tournament and our play against UCLA reflected that," he said. "Not taking anything away from them but we certainly didn't play our best game in that loss. I think a year's experience has given our girls a much more positive attitude."
Bruin coach Adam Krikorian, who guided the Bruins to the men's title in the fall of '00, then won the women's title the following spring (the only coach
ever to accomplish this feat), says his Bruins are excited about making it back into the NCAA Final Four — especially with the tournament at USC.
"At Stanford last year the crowd was great but they were of course totally against us, which made winning that much sweeter. Here we're playing in our own backyard and our fans will be able to support us much more easily plus playing at USC — our traditional crosstown rival — makes it that much more interesting."
Krikorian says the Bruins' 11-7 victory over Stanford in the finals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tourney two weeks ago at SC, which gave
UCLA the automatic NCAA berth, can be "thrown out" this weekend.
"Both ourselves and Stanford pretty much knew going in that we'd be going to NCAAs so I don't think the match's intensity was quite as high as it might have been — and as it will be if we both win Saturday," he said.
Stanford has a 3-1 seasonal edge over UCLA, with the Bruins' sole win coming in the MPSF finals.
"They had our number, that's for sure," Krikorian adds. "They're a great team, very poised, very experienced and have perhaps the two best players in
the country in Brenda Villa [last year's NCAA Player of the Year as a freshman] and Ellen Estes. Those two can realy do a lot of damage and with Jackie Franks in the cage they have a great goalie too."
Stanford's only losses this season have been to the Bruins and to USC during the MPSF regular-season. UCLA defeated USC, 9-8, late last month.
"We''ve been waiting a year for this [possible rematch]" said Cardinal coach John Tanner. "and we're anxious to take care of some unfinished business.
They [UCLA] beat us in our home pool last season for the title and we'd like to return the favor here in Los Angeles."
Stanford's is the tourney's top-seed but Krikorian says that doesn't bother the Bruins.
"They deserve it, they have the better record and they've beaten us three times. But I seem to recall they [Stanford] was top-seeded last year and we won –after they beat us in the MPSF finals last year in Honolulu — so seeedings and records aren't particularly meaningful at this stage."
Villa is the Cardinal's and the country's top scorer with 55 goals in 23 games and is "just devastating," according to Krikorian. "She can score from anywhere in the pool and she's such a quick shooter too — her release is just like that (snapping his fingers). It's not so much a question of stopping her as much as limiting her effectiveness."
Stanford's other "Big Gun" is Margie Dingeldein with 35 goals, while Estes has 32 and Cards Wendy Wtakins (28) and Julie Gardner — both all-MPSF selectees — follow.
Frank has averaged 7.32 saves per game (161 in 22) and has allowed 87 for a 3.95 goals against average. Stanford has outscored its opponents 243-91.
UCLA's leading scorers are senior Kelly Heuchan and sophomore Natalie Golda, each with 33 scores. Heuchan was a member of Australia's Olympic team while
Heuchan –a rangy center/playmaker — was a member of the U.S. junior national team that won the World Championship last December Down Under — beating Australia for the gold.
Bruin rookie Amber Stachowski with 27 goals is UCLA's third-leading scorer while her sister Amy, a junior, has tallied 8. Amber also has the highest shooting percentage of any Bruin who's attempted more than 40 goals with a .659 average (27-41).
The Stachowskis also have a kid sister who may soon join them in Westwood as Amy Stachowski will be a senior this fall at Santa Margarita High in Orange
County. Her team was CIF runner-up to Foothills this past season and Krikorian is hoping to see her in blue and gold for the '04 season.
UCLA has scored 253 goals while allowing 78, slightly better than Stanford's 243-91. Bruins goalie Jamie Hipp has 179 saves in 278 shots for an impressive 3.95 GA average. She's been battling a hip pointer since early in the season but Krikorian says injuries are
"part of the game" at this stage.
"Everybody's hurt, tired, worn out on both teams [Stanford, UCLA]," he says. "It's been a long, hard season for everybody so we're all in the same position."
Loyola made it into the Final Four with an 8-4 victory over U Cal San Diego in the finals of the Western Water Polo Assn. tourney two weeks ago in Santa Cruz. Michigan earned its ticket to LaLa Land as the Eastern representative via its 7-6 overtime win over Hartwick at Princeton that same weekend.
"Having such a prestigious school as Michigan in the tourney will do nothing but benefit the sport," Krikorian says. "When a Big 10 school makes it in
that gets the attention of all the other schools in the conference and we're hoping more will begin sponsoring women's polo — and men's too."
In the seven years that water polo has been a women's sport, UCLA has won six championships — four under Krikorian. The Bruins won the inaugural NCAA title last year after having won the '00 national collegiate title. UCLA also won back-to-back-to-back national colelgiate championships in '96-'98, then again two years ago and the first official NCAA title last season.
Stanford has never won either a national-collegiate crown but were runners-up twice, last season and in
'99 (to SC in quadruple overtime).
– Bill Bell