2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament: Selected Quotes

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A happy bunch of Stanford Cardinals after their NCAA finals win over USC. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

STANFORD, CA. Last weekend saw brilliant action at the 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament. For the first time in the almost two-decade history of the women’s national championship, both semifinals went to overtime, with USC overcoming Cal 10-8 and Stanford surviving a scare from UCLA to prevailing 8-7.

[#1 USC, #2 Stanford Survive Upset Bids, Advance to 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Title Match]

The final was equally compelling, as Ryann Neushul, a freshman who had scored what turned out to be the winning goal against UCLA the day before, hit for the winning score in an 9-8 win over the Trojans, as the Cardinal captured their seventh national championship.

[In a Season of Change, One Constant Remains: Stanford Women’s Water Polo Is Again National Champions]

Following are select quotes as well as some additional comments from key participants in this year’s women’s national water polo tournament.

May 12, 2019; Avery Aquatic Center, Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Women's Water Polo: NCAA Championship Game: USC Trojans vs Stanford Cardinals; Stanford Cardinal Driver Ryann Neushul Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Stanford’s Ryann Neushul. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Ryann Neushul; a freshman, her sisters Kiley and Jamie played at Stanford; they were both on the 2015 NCAA winner while Jamie was a senior when Stanford won in 2017. Both played on the U.S. Senior Women’s National Team that won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

She’s speaking right after the Stanford vs. UCLA match. One observation about the youngest Neushul sister; she does NOT lack for confidence.

On blowing a big lead against UCLA:

Sometimes in these games when you get ahead it can almost be… you want to be ahead in these games, you want to be winning but you can get into this kind of dry spell and moments of having tons of goals, then you’re allowing a goal or you’re having nothing.

In those moments, it’s really difficult to rally back, but I think we did a really good job to rally back. In the third quarter was particularly difficult because they were able to come back and tie up the game. When they went 6-5 that was a huge moment for us when we got put back on our heels—responding with that goal from Aria and just from our great defense is where it all came from.

We had great stops, we were relentless, and that’s exactly how the game goes: your defense feeds your offense.

On a family’s history with Stanford Water Polo:

I’ve been really privileged to grow up in a family that loves water polo. My mother, my father, they love the sport, they played; my sisters played here and I grew up watching these finals. I watched both of my sisters play in the 2015 final at Stanford—and watched my sister [Kiley] take the five-meter to win [the match].

That’s absolutely life changing, and those are the moments when I knew that I wanted to be at Stanford.

Being exposed to that at a young age and being able to play water polo where my sisters did, with their input and to play the game with them made me a great player. Being around players like Aria—players that have great passion for the game who play it at a high level, just like our entire team at Stanford does. That feeds your energy—you feed off other people during the game.

I actually have a photo of me making this cake for Stanford when I was eight years old. Now I’m here and it’s surreal sometimes—a dream come true every moment I’m here.

STANFORD, CA - February 4, 2018: Team at Avery Aquatic Center. The Stanford Cardinal defeated Long Beach State 14-2.

Stanford’s John Tanner. Photo Courtesy: Erin Chang

John Tanner, Stanford head coach, is one of the most congenial coaches in the game—and certainly one of the best. He has more women’s titles—seven—then anyone in NCAA history. Tanner always looks to give his athletes the opportunity to say what they think

On the value of freshmen in his program:

Sometimes freshmen are the best because they ran their high schools last year, so they’ve got that immediacy of transition from being in charge of their high schools.

Opponents focus on Makenzie Fischer, and it disrupts the Stanford offense:

All these women get to this level by being the MVP of their team, or league, or high school or club—whatever it is. They’re all exceptional and they have all stood out, and yet the reason that they’re here with these teams, all these women, frankly from all eight teams, they have been able to play the most demanding team sport. Physically we all get that—and embrace the team.

[MPSF Tournament Central: Catching Up With Stanford Coach John Tanner]

I don’t think that balance is a hard one to strike, and they’ve had a lot of experience at it.

Makenzie is amazing. She’s just a sensational role model; I don’t think she has taken a break on a single rep of a single set or of a single drill the entire year. She’s just been all out on everything. It’s that kind of mentality that helps us all through difficult moments.

UCLA Athletics - 2019 UCLA Women's Water Polo versus the University of Pacific Tigers, Sunset Recreational Center, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. March 29th, 2019 Copyright Don Liebig/ASUCLA 190329_WWP_0391.NEF

UCLA’s Adam Wright. Photo Courtesy: Don Liebig

Adam Wright, is one of the most successful coaches in college water polo, and a keen observer of the game. He predicted the sequence against the host Cardinal, as his team had a fantastic opportunity to win after starting the match with a 5-0 deficit.

Opportunity against Stanford:

For UCLA water polo, tomorrow’s a huge opportunity for our program. And it’s a huge opportunity for the individuals on our team. The moment’s coming, and it’s either we’re going to be ready or we’ve got to go back to the drawing board. I believe in our team, we’ve put the work in and it’s going to be exciting.

I can tell you from the past, we’ve got off to slow starts—I’m okay getting off to a slow start, but not if we don’t approach the game the right way. That will be a real test right out the gate: are we here to play or are we going to wait. And if we’re here to play, we’re going to have our chance.

Look, the progression of this team [is] they’ve come a long way. But, if we’re going to be honest, a long way isn’t good enough.

[Five Questions for Adam Wright, UCLA Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach]

I can say it again: it’s a massive opportunity for UCLA women’s water polo tomorrow. Stanford’s been the team that’s beaten us pretty consistently. If we can do the little things right we’re going to have our chance.

We’ve got to make that last step. The hope is, tomorrow we’re going to trust ourselves and trust each other and let’s see where this thing goes.

On getting behind early:

We can get behind. We’ve been in finals where we’ve been down 4-0 on the men’s side. We can’t get behind because of our approach. We can go down 3-0, but if we’re here to play from the first moment, then that’s all that I want to see.

If we can do that and stay consistent we know we were one stop away from winning the game here four or five weeks ago. Even down 4-nothing. We can get ourselves out of it.

The reality is: we can go down 4-0. That’s not the plan, but we can do it and still have a chance to win the game like we did a couple of weeks ago.

January 27, 2019; Spieker Aquatics Center, Berkeley, CA, USA; Womens Water Polo:Cal Cup : California Golden Bears vs UCLA Bruins Exhibition Game; UCLA Attacker Maddie Musselman guarded by California Attacker Georgia Bogle Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

UCLA’s Maddie Musselman. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Maddie Musselman, Olympian, one of the all-time UCLA greats, and likely to end her career as one of the leading scorers in Bruin history. She spoke about her Olympic teammates before the semifinals.

Slowing down Makenzie Fischer:

[Makenzie’s] a great player. For us, it’s playing our game and how we want to play. Especially for UCLA it’s all about defense. It will come down to that tomorrow. We can win 1-0 if it comes down to that—especially when we have one of the best goalkeepers in collegiate water polo.

If we keep them in front of us and shut down their counterattack it’s going to be a really challenging game for them.

No. 1 USC Takes First Defeat Of 2019 In 9-8 Overtime Loss To No. 2 Stanford.

USC’s Casey Moon. Photo Courtesy: John McGillen

Casey Moon, the interim head coach for USC women’s team, has dealt with a difficult situation through grace and patience. Suddenly thrust into the top job because of Jovan Vavic’s firing, he’s likely been peppered with questions about his mentor. Speaking about how the Trojans weathered a tough game against the Golden Bears, he briefly mentioned some post-Vavic insights.

On the win over Cal:

Our team is built for this. Whatever happened this season for us the girls rallied around themselves. It’s what we train for. For us to take any game into overtime or sudden death our girls are so confident in each other and truly love one another. Regardless of what the circumstances are they’ll do everything in their power to come out on the winning end.

We need to learn how to adjust, regardless whether that adjustment is for us or against us. We need to change the moment of how we play. If the ref calls it this way then we don’t know how it will be called.

We always have to have short memories and focus on the next play regardless of whether the exclusion goes for us or against us.

We’ve gone through some adversity from the very beginning—since we got back from Hawai’i. I think until now the ejection ratio has gone against us. But that comes from how we play. We play aggressive team defense—that’s just our team make-up.

Our girls have done an incredible job of learning how to adjust and play the right way.

No. 1 USC Takes First Defeat Of 2019 In 9-8 Overtime Loss To No. 2 Stanford.

USC’s Amanda Longan. Photo Courtesy: John McGillen

Amanda Longan, the USC goalie, is an all-world player who will likely make the U.S. Olympic squad. A senior co-captain along with Courtney Fahey, it was part of her responsibility to support her younger teammates while the drama with deposed head coach Jovan Vavic played out.

Supporting her younger teammates:

Going into NCAA as a freshman, being in the cage was really nerve-wracking. You still can’t prep any freshmen for that. You can talk them into why you should play confident but my reasoning to them is: it’s okay to be nervous. It’s bound to happen and it’s kind of a good thing when it does happen. But, just go into this game and play hard, give us what you’ve got and that’s all you’ve got to do.

Play with the nerves—work with that.

January 26, 2019; Spieker Aquatics Center, Berkeley, CA, USA; Womens Water Polo:Cal Cup : California Golden Bears vs Fresno State Bulldogs; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Cal’s Coralie Simmons. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Coralie Simmons, head coach for University of California, was one of the most successful players in NCAA history, winning three national championships at UCLA. After almost a decade coaching at Somona State, three years she took over the Cal program and has enjoyed tremendous success. She spoke after her team’s 10-8 loss to USC in the semifinals.

On her success at Cal—three years, three semifinals:

You inherit some and you bring some in and they meshed well, they blended well right away three years ago, creating the culture that we wanted. It’s a team full of heart and wanting to play together—wanting to win games on that level on that level with those efforts.

It’s not the talent that gets us through a season, it’s coming together with our best plan of attack and culture and attitudes to create what we’re going to do.

They’ve put their stamp on the program, and they’re not lost in their senior graduation

Every year you’re going to graduate people out but they’re going to be forever stamped on what we’re building.

Three semifinals? I told them before the game: you don’t get semis back. The last semifinal was not the same feeling. We lost in a different way. This is a semifinal we’ll never forget. We want it back; we want another two minutes, we want the ball to bounce another way, calls to go our way, this and that.

I want to play that game over; it’s not something I want to forget [or] flush it out. I’ll probably watch that game two dozen times.

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Pacific’s James Graham. Photo Courtesy: Pacific Athletics

James Graham, the head coach for the Pacific men’s and women’s team, is one of the brightest minds in the sport. Understanding the challenge in supplanting the “Big Four”—Cal, Stanford, UCA and USC—Graham is always looking to figure out how to succeed.

[On The Record with Pacific’s James Graham]

His Pacific women’s squad has advanced to the past three NCAAs quarterfinals, but haven’t been able to get any further. After a disappointing loss to Stanford he spoke about what it will take to get to a semifinal.

How to be more competitive with Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC?

[We] try to focus on creating the competitive parity; we did a study on women’s water polo and the parity’s much different than men’s water polo. Allie Hill, one of my former assistants did the study; what she found is there’s a lot of parity in women’s water polo from team four on; there’s no parity one through three. No one beats one through three in women’s water polo—they don’t lose. Team four on can get upset.

In men’s water polo, it’s really hard to upset a team if they’re ranked four or five spots ahead of you. In an eight vs. four game it’s really hard for eight to ever beat four. But, one, two, three—they get beat. They’ll get upset.

We’ve done it a number of times. We’ve got eleven Pac12 wins over the last 5 – 6 years.

But the number four team in women’s water polo never beats one-three.

In order to [win] it’s a combination of everything. you have to have talent; if you don’t have talent it’s a non-starter. From there you have to have people who are buying into what you want to do.

Moneyball said it best: there’s rich teams, there’s poor teams, there’s 50 feet of garbage and then there’s us. You’ve got to find different ways to win.

Those juniors [Pacific has six juniors on this year’s squad] we’re working on a plan to possibly red-shirt them all and bring them all back [the following year]. I don’t know that it’s going to happen but it’s a possibility. If we can do that then we can come back and have quite a bit of experience in 2021.

We’ll see what shapes up but you’ve got to find different ways. That would bring five seniors back and fifth-years.

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Michigan’s Marcelo Leonardi. Photo Courtesy: Maciek Gudrymowicz

Marcelo Leonardi, now in his fourth year as Michigan head coach, has been to NCAAs all of those years—and he’s looking for more. A tough loss to UCLA only whetted his team’s appetite for something more in the future.

Progress over the last four years:

Every year—you take the four-year sample size–when we first took this program, we were out of the top 20. Going to NCAA was a vacation.

Now, we’ve put ourselves in a position where we want to win a game, we’ve seen what the Final Four looks like, and we as a program are expected to be here. We want to win a conference championship but the more time you’re here, the more familiarity you have, the wins seem more reachable. The wins get a bit closer.

Recruits who normally would have normally chosen one program now consider Michigan. If we can’t step into somebody’s home and present the situation where you’ve been a conference champion for four years and been to NCAA, it’s very hard to sell getting to a Final Four.

We’ve built a stable program. We were sixth leading into the tournament, and for the last four years we finished in the Top Ten.

I believe we’re now at a point we’re we are going to break through. And it take more than just one person. I can go out and find one more person… but the process will get us to the final product. If we’re healthy enough and position ourselves well, we will punch through.

There will be a day when Michigan will shock the world.

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UCSD’s Brad Kreutzkamp. Photo Courtesy: UC San Diego Athletics

Brad Kreutzkamp, head coach for the UC San Diego squad, has had a remarkable run of success as a member of the Western Water Polo Association—a run that includes 45-straight WWPA wins and seven straight titles. With a move to the Big West conference for 2020, the level of competition will change drastically—though the Tritons, as a DII program, were not offering substantial sums of scholarship money; now they’ll have funding to secure top California (and elsewhere) talent.

Transition to the Big West:

Because that transition has been in the works for a number of years, we’ve been ramping up for it. It wasn’t like it was dropped on us yesterday. We’ve been increasing our recruiting effort to compete with the talent that’s in the Big West [where] the talent top to bottom is fantastic. We’re within a few goals of these teams already; if we continue improving our effort and our recruiting we’ll be right there with [Big West] teams.

We’re looking forward to the challenge.

Number of scholarships?

We’re a DII university and we do offer scholarships. Those scholarships haven’t hit our budget until the last couple of years.

Krista Schneider, UC San Diego senior:

Why people don’t go to UC San Diego is because they’re not getting money. I’ve seen it for the past four years having to host incoming freshmen; they always say: This school’s offering me more.

There’s nothing wrong with San Diego at all. Anyone would want to go La Jolla over some other place. Money will be a big factor in getting these bigger, better athletes. It’s going to be cool to see.

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Hawai’i’s Irene Gonzalez. Photo Courtesy: John Fajardo

Irene Gonzalez—with 226 goals—finished third overall on Hawai’i’s all-time scoring list. After a stellar career with the Rainbow Wahine, the Spanish native will now return home and fight for a spot on the Spanish national team, just in time for the 2020 Olympics.

Playing in Hawai’i:

These four years have been hard because we have been three times to championship of Big West and we just won this year. It’s the first time.

We lost this game but we knew it was difficult. We played Cal already three times. We could have played so much better for sure, as our defense wasn’t great.

We won the Big West Championship our senior year. It was for me something I hadn’t accomplished since the first year I arrived here.

The victory against Irvine it was something we had going on since last year because we lost in sudden death by one goal.

What’s next for when you return to Spain?

I’m going to practice with the national team this summer. In September, I’m going to start with a new club—Sant Andreu—near Barcelona. It’s one of the best three teams in Spain. It’s a good chance I can be with the national team this year. We’ll see how it goes about the Olympics.

How will you fight your way onto the Olympic roster?

They haven’t seen me in four years [so] I have to really show what I’m capable of. I was there before I left—I almost went to the [2016] Olympics. I was the 14th (last person cut). I have a chance so I’m going to give my best.

What will you remember most about your time in Hawai’i?

Playing in America is so much different than playing in Spain. I learned so much these past four years—I could never have learned all of this back in Spain. It’s a different culture [and a] different game. It’s good for me that I came here; I enjoyed these four years so much.

All of my teammates every year they were from different cultures—that’s something that doesn’t happen really often, being part of a family. Most of us were internationals, so we were all there for each other—I will remember this for the rest of my life.

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