2019 Women’s Water Polo Preview: Golden Coast Conference

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Can anyone in the GCC stop Pacific's Kyra Christmas—who delivers all the time. Photo Courtesy: JDMS Creations

Editor’s Note: The 2019 NCAA women’s water polo season officially opened on Saturday, January 12th with the ASU Invitational at Arizona State. and action continues this weekend for numerous NCAA varsity programs. Swimming World will provide previews of the seven varsity conferences—Big West, Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA), Golden Coast Conference (GCC), Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) and Western Water Polo Association (WWPA)—that will send teams to the 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament.

Rankings refer to the CWPA Women’s Varsity Preseason Poll that was released on January 16th.

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The Tigers of Pacific are the favorites, the Lions of Loyola Marymount are lurking, and the Aztecs of San Diego State are looking to get back to the top. That’s a quick run-down of the 2018 Golden Coast Conference pre-season coaches poll.

Swimming World is not one to deviate too much; there’s no question that Pacific is the class of the conference. But upstart LMU will have a hard time keeping SCSU down; until last year the Aztec had never lost a conference game.

Chasing the leaders for a shot at a berth in the 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament will be Cal Baptist, Fresno State, Santa Clara, Azusa Pacific and Concordia—which placed seventh in the 2018 Golden Coast Conference tournament on the strength of its first-ever GCC win.

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All-Americans Mariana Duarte (61 goals, 22 assists) and Kyra Christmas (61 goals, 40 assists—2018 GCC Player of the Year) are the dual engines that have powered #8 Pacific to back-to-back GCC berths—and make them a favorite for a three-peat. The international players—Duarte from Brazil; Christmas from Canada—are the Tigers top two scorers in last season, a trend that should continue. But the fate of Head Coach James Graham’s squad likely rests in the hands of Samantha Pfaff. The red-shirt senior will get first shot at replacing the now-graduated Alexis Hollinrake, who made all the starts in the Pacific cage in 2018.

If Pfaff is not up to the task, there’s freshman Clara Vulpisi, who has already competed internationally with the Canadian Senior National team. More firepower is available from Viktoria Szmodics (30 goals; 54 points) and Viktoria Tamas (42 points) and Graham always recruits well; including Vulspi he’s brought in eight freshmen as well as Emma Myall, a junior transfer. Will this be enough to get the Tigers back to the top of the GCC?

Key Matchup: Loyola Marymount, Saturday, April 1, Stockton, CA

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#19 San Diego State regressed last year in conference play; after going undefeated the previous four seasons in GCC regular season matches, a 5-2 early season loss to Loyola Marymount snapped a streak of 20 straight wins. 2019 may see a return to health in Aztec fortunes. Emily Bennett (50 goals), Hannah Carrillo (42) and Shelby Kraft (24) combined for more than half of the team’s total of 221 last season; all three return in 2019. Senior Maura Cantoni will again be in the cage for Head Coach Carin Crawford; last year she racked up 229 saves.

The question is: how much has the rest of the GCC changed? With nine freshmen and eight sophomores on a roster of 24, SDSU will have to contend with its conference foes and youthful mistakes if it’s to be in play for an NCAA berth.

Key Matchup: Pacific, Friday, April 12, San Diego, CA

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A strong showing by #16 Loyola Marymount in 2018 was the result of Hana Vilanova’s strong season (69 goals, 53 steals, All-American selection) and Claire Wright’s stalwart goaltending. Throw in a stellar effort by Abbey Grosse—34 goals and a team-high 38 assists—good for 72 points—and it adds up to a fantastic season by the Lions, one that saw them in the GCC championship match for the first time since they won back-to-back titles in 2014-15.

The loss to Pacific in last year’s title tilt will not dampen the spirits of the LMU faithful, but losing Wright (296 saves, 5.63 GAA) may impact the Lion’s fortunes. A key addition is the arrival of Marialena Seletopoulou (110 goals in 2018) from Greece by way of St. Francis University. Can Vilanova, Grosse, Seletopoulou Katie Hungerford (31 assists and 47 points), senior goalie Sky Flores, as well as line-up dominated by seniors (6) and juniors (6) again propel Head Coach Kyle Witt’s squad past the Aztecs to the top of the GCC?

Key Matchup: San Diego State, Friday, March 22, Los Angeles, CA

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#24 California Baptist finished 2018 strong, with a one-goal loss to San Diego State and wins against Santa Clara and Fresno State in the conference tournament. Going into a new season, the Lancers will look to build on that success. Having Kira O’Donnell (team-high 58 goals and 92 points—Golden Coast Conference Newcomer of the Year in 2018), senior Lizette Perez (41 goals, 42 assists, 2018 All-GCC 1st Team) and junior goalie Grace Ramirez return is a great foundation for Head Coach Jonathan Miller to build on, as he looks to improve on a program-best third place finish in the GCC.

Sophomore Vicky Ochoa chipped in with 22 goals, but Miller will need to find offense to replace Annie Eubanks (33 goals) and Allie Coleman (40 assists for 67 points)—both of whom graduated. He’s got six freshman he can look to; the most heralded of which is Kinga Wisniewska, who competed internationally for Canada’s 17U team. This could all add up to another winning season for Miller (98-68 in five seasons leading the Lancers); will it bring him a GCC title shot?

Key Matchup: Fresno State, Saturday, April 6, Fresno, CA

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In their first year in existence, the Fresno State Bulldogs enjoyed a lot of firsts; first goal (Gabrielle Wiltse), first win (California State University at Northridge), first national ranking (as high as #21). After going a noteworthy 7-18 in season one, the question is: how high can the Bulldogs leap in season two?

Callie Woodruff chipped in 47 goals to lead all Fresno State scorers, while Emily Nicholson scored 36. Coach Natalie Benson added seven freshmen to her roster of sophomores and juniors; Woodruff, Nicholson and Sydney Coachman (27 points) are the leading returners, as is goalie Madelynn Garcia (132 saves; 10.58 GAA).

[Five Questions for Natalie Benson, Head Women’s Water Polo Coach at Fresno State]

Among the newcomers, Daphne Guerremont—a Canadian junior national team player—and Sara Parson, a junior transfer from Santa Barbara City College, will help kick-start the Fresno State offense. Indications are that the groundwork laid by Benson and her players will bear long-term fruit.

Key Matchup: Fresno Pacific, Friday, February 8, Fresno, CA

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A last place finish in 2018 for Santa Clara may seem a long time ago, but it’s likely that Head Coach Keith Wilbur will be sure that his players remember. Hannah Buck (49 goals, 75 exclusions drawn) Annie Eldredge (35) and Hailey Eberle (34) scored more than half of the Broncos’ goals in 2018. All three return, as does goalie Lydia Dadd, who started all 31 of Santa Clara’s matches.

Wilbur has great balance on his roster, but no seniors: 10 freshmen, seven sophomores and six juniors. Will this be enough to get the Broncos out of the GCC cellar?

Key Matchup: Asuza Pacific, Friday, April 12, Santa Clara, CA

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Azusa Pacific’s leading scorer from last season—Britt Harris (team-high 49 goals and 68 points; All-American recognition)—graduated, but top talent remain, headlined by All-American selection Mar Pastor Alvarez (27 goals, 76 exclusions drawn, All-American honors) including sophomores Britni Tisdale (33 goals, 27 assists), Hannah Bradley (41 goals) and junior Mireia Tutusaus Alcaraz (29 goals). Add in Sarah Adams (34 goals) and Head Coach Julie Snograss—2018 ACWPC National Coach of the Year—has a potent offense, one that last year propelled the Cougars to a fourth-place finish in the GCC, the program’s best result in its six years of conference play.

This year may be a tougher go. Erica Marquez, who started all of Azusa Pacific’s matches in 2018, has also graduated, leaving goaltending duties to Olivia Lott, an untested sophomore. Right behind her are freshmen Gabrielle Mantyka and Hannah Murray, part of a recruiting class of four newcomers. The Cougars have a good balance of experience and exuberance; Snograss has six seniors and four juniors on her roster, along with nine underclassmen.

Key Matchup: Fresno State, Friday, March 29, Glendora, CA

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After being winless in three seasons of GCC play, Concordia rose up for victory at the best possible moment. In their conference tournament, the Eagles knocked off Santa Clara to claim seventh place, the best finish ever for Dreason Barry’s squad.

There’s reason for continued optimism in Irvine. Junior college transfer Ariana Olmos and Siena Goggia both return to the Eagle nets; they are among a crop of 15 upper classmen on Barry’s roster that includes leading scorers Dailynn Santoro (29 goals, 33 points, 2018 All-GCC Freshman Team), Hanna Jordan (24 goals) and Lindsey Heaney (25 goals). Five freshmen, headlined by goalie Kiara Espeleta, provide for a future that appears considerable brighter now that the Eagles have broken through to a GCC win.

Key Matchup: Santa Clara, Friday, March 29, Irvine, CA