2019 Women’s Water Polo Preview: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

If form holds, just change the date; the Seahawks are favorites to win the MAAC again in 2019. Photo Courtesy: Wagner Athletics

Editor’s Note: The 2019 NCAA women’s water polo season officially opened on Saturday, January 12th with the ASU Invitational at Arizona State. Action continued last 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.

maac-logo-apr-17The reason that the old adage—The more things change, the more they stay the same—is noteworthy, is that it’s often true. Take Wagner, which has absolutely dominated the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, with five MAAC titles (2014-2018) and currently owns a 44-match win streak against conference opponents. The Seahawks are again favored for the title and a sixth-straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

Not if Marist has a say in things. After losing in the finals to the Seahawks the last five years, the Red Foxes have retooled for yet another run at an NCAA berth. Perhaps this season they—or some other MAAC aspirant—will end Wagner’s reign of excellence. Three coaches new to conference play this season—Bora Dimitrov at St. Francis Brooklyn, Tom Hyham at La Salle and Larry Sanders at Villanova—will take their shot, as the opposition needs to rise up against the Seahawks’ tyranny.

wagnerThere’s no other way to say it: #14 Wagner has had one of the most dominant runs in MAAC history. Eight straight finals trips with five wins in a row. The Seahawks’ titles streak is unprecedented in conference history. There’s no reason that this string of success won’t continue, albeit without Kimberly Watson (99 goals; 48 assists; MAAC-high 147 points; 2018 Offensive Player of the Year)—one of the most dominant players in program history—who graduated last spring.

[Wagner Closes Out a 3rd-Straight Undefeated MAAC Women’s Water Polo Season]

Head Coach Chris Radmonovich has any number of candidates to fill the loss of 156 goals from three seniors—Watson, Emily Begg (37 goals) and Lacey Anderson (20 goals). Returning from 2018 are senior Erica Hardy (85 goals, 60 assists, team-high 85 steals; All-MAAC First Team) and junior Jacqui Sjogren (63 goals, team-high 53 exclusions drawn). Throw in five freshmen—headlined by Sofia Diaz Alvarez and Savannah Henshaw—plus seven sophomores (including Campbell), and Radmonovich has a young core prepared to continued winning this season and beyond.

The athlete who may be the ultimate difference maker for the Seahawks is goalie Katherine Campbell. If she continues the stellar play (201 saves; a 24-5 record) in just one season on Staten Island, Campbell will lay the defensive foundation for another MAAC winner. If not, freshman Mikaela Wells is waiting in the wings; the Seahawk coach is unsentimental when it comes to making decisions; last year, despite having senior Anna Ward who had waited patiently to assume the top spot, Radmonovich pushed the right button and inserted his freshman. Again.

Key Matchup: Indiana, Saturday, March 2, Bloomington, IN

Memorable news from last weekend’s opening polo play in the West was #22 Marist’s upset win over #19 San Diego State. This made for a fantastic opening for Head Coach Chris Vidale’s squad and demonstrates that his three-year rebuilding plan is beginning to bear fruit. Junior Carsen Horvatich will take the majority of minutes in the Red Fox cage with back-up by senior Hope Vickers. Sisters Justine (junior) and Jocelyn (freshman) Castro will be a dynamic duo this year; Justine has already contributed 68 goals in two years in Poughkeepsie. Sophomore Lauren Smith (30 goals), will be in the mix, as will senior center Grace Doerfler (48 goals)

Missing for Marist this season is Diana Carballo (39 goals, team-high 42 assists); she earned All-American honorable mention in her final season as a Red Fox. Another All-American will return; Katherine Tijerina (team-highs with 57 goals and 98 points) is now a senior; she is likely eager to beat Wagner at least once in her Marist career.

Besides Jocelyn Castro, Vidale has brought in five freshmen, most notably being Myriam Lizotte, a member of the Canadian Junior national team. Mixing the old and the new—with a big season from Horvatich—may get Marist to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010—and end the Seahawks’ dominance.

Key Matchup: Wagner, Saturday, April 6, Brooklyn, NY

IonaAs Wagner and Marist have grown stronger, Iona has struggled to keep pace. The biggest challenge for Head Coach Brian Kelly is replacing his two All-MAAC First teamers from 2018: Hannah Schultz (94 goals; 379 in her illustrious Gaels career) and Britten Vilander (230 saves; 9.8 GAA). There were other losses to graduation; Megan Hofer (34 goals, 43 points) and Kayla Allen (60 goals; 47 steals).

The good news is that Kelly has a crop of second-year players who now have a year of experience, headlined by red-shirt sophomore Hallie Garfield, who will look to wrest the top netminding job from junior Jordin Hale and freshman Cristina Chiappini. Jordan Van Reeken is also a second-year player (44 goals, 50 steals and 66 exclusions drawn). Kelly’s line-up should be more than enough to make top-four in the conference—and qualify for the MAAC tournament—but getting past Wagner or Marist will be a tall order.

Key Matchup: Marist, Saturday 23, Staten Island, NY

villanova-logoThe difference between VMI—which earned the fourth spot—and Villanova, which finished fifth, qualifying for the 2018 MAAC Tournament, was the final regular season match between the two teams. The Wildcats lost 17-14 to the Keydets—rallying after being down 5-0 in the first period—and were on the outside of the playoffs looking in for the second straight season. Credit Villanova AD Mark Jackson for sizing up the situation and making significant change, including luring Larry Sanders from the West Coast and making him a full-time leader for the Wildcat women.

[On The Record with Larry Sanders, New Villanova Women’s Water Polo Coach]

Will a new coach be the difference this year for Villanova? Not without some talent—and Villanova lost Dominique Clark (78 goals—246 for her career) to graduation. Sanders inherited a very young team, with nine sophomores and four freshmen. There’s only one senior—Kate Stenmoen (16 goals)—and one junior, Paris Huffman. This is an ideal situation for a new coach with a different approach. There’s no guarantee Sanders can effective immediate change, but if freshman Gaby Palmisano comes in and is a difference-maker in the Wildcat cage, a top four finish is not out of question.

Key Matchup: VMI, Sunday, March 24, Staten Island, NY

vmi-logoJunior goalie Isabel French has demonstrated that she’s one of the best that has ever donned Virginia Military Institute colors. 306 saves and an 8.79 GAA in 2018, MAAC Pre-Season Goalie of the Year for 2019, and post-season berths in her two seasons in Lexington. This season, French may have to produce her greatest season ever, because Head Coach Ryan Pryor saw two other Keydet greats receive their commissions last spring. Shelby Barkley (107 goals; 116 exclusions drawn) and Natalie Rivas (56 goals, 91 points, 44 steals) will not be providing offense to balance French’s defense.

There’s six freshman, two sophomores, three juniors and two seniors on the VMI roster as Pryor lost a core of senior leadership and scoring. Only junior Sarah Dolisky (70 goals) returns from the Keydets 2018 top four scorers. Even with the MAAC’s presumptive best goalie, making it back to the conference postseason will be a tall order.

Key Matchup: Siena, Saturday, March 9, Lexington, VA

siena-logoWith Tamara Perea taking the Saints helm, Siena was only one win better in 2018 than the year before. But the improvement were quite pronounced, and they are now evident in the recognition Perea’s players receive. Junior attacker Diana Fernandez (63 goals; 93 points; 69 ejections drawn) and sophomore defender Sophia Torres (35 goals, 38 assists) were both named to the 2019 All-MAAC Preseason Team.

The Saints have two experienced goalies, seniors Nicole Feldtz, who returns from an injury that last year curtailed her season, and Kennedy Joseph. Two freshmen—Georgia Vargas and Bianca Prinsloo—will help Perea build for the future and perhaps help make up the loss of Clare Bryar (70 goas) to graduation.

Key Matchup: Iona, Sunday, March 10, Lexington, VA

StFrancisBrooklynTerriersAnother coach new to the MAAC is Bora Dimitrov—but he’s not new to St. Francis, as he’s coached the Terrier men the past two season. He takes over a program that has some very useful components, chief of which is Kelsey Snelgar. The freshman from New Zealand arrived in Brooklyn Heights just before the 2018 season started and absolutely dominated—103 goals, 103 steals, MAAC Rookie of the Year. Surrounding the sensational Snelgar are six upper classmen, five freshmen and two sophomores.

In many ways, how newcomer Mary Catherine McKendry performs will be pivotal for the Terriers in 2019. It’s perhaps not fair to put the weight of an entire season on the shoulders of a freshman, but McKendry is the only goalie on the Terrier roster—and last year there were too many winnable games where the team put field players in the cage because SFC lacked goalie depth.

Assuming a reliable starter in goal, there’s only one direction for St. Francis—led by Snelgar and coached by Dimitrov—to go: up. But it’s likely not enough to get them to the postseason.

Key Matchup: Whittier, Sunday, March 3, Claremont, CA

lasalle-logoSpeaking of one direction to go, La Salle—with new Head Coach Tom Hyham—can only get better after an 0-18 campaign in 2018. It will be virtually impossible to go winless again, but wins will be in extremely short supply for the Explorers. Luckily, Jillian Delisle (35 goals) and Stephanie Morales (18 goals, 10 assists) are back, as is Jenny Fermaintt, who got the majority of starts in goal.

[On The Record with Tom Hyham, Head Coach, La Salle Men’s and Women’s Water Polo]

Seven juniors—all from the original recruiting class—have stuck it out through La Salle’s first two years. Hyham has an equal number of freshmen on his roster; there’s also six sophomores, giving the veteran coach a prime opportunity to immediately change the program’s culture, and lead the Explorers to better outcomes in 2019.

Key Matchup: Salem, Sunday, March 10, Lewisburg, PA