2019 Women’s Water Polo Preview: Mountain Pacific Sports Federation

May 12, 2018; Uytengsu Aquatics Center, Los Angeles, California, USA; Women's Water Polo: NCAA Championship Game: USC Trojans vs Stanford Cardinals; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne- KLC fotos
Can the Trojans win MPSF again—and capture another NCAA title in 2019? Photo Courtesy: Cathryn Hayne

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.

mpsf-shield-finalWhen Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) women’s teams were last in action, USC was claiming the NCAA championship–the program’s fifth-ever, all under Head Coach Jovan Vavic—with a tough 5-4 win over Stanford. It’s convenient to suggest that 2019 will see a repeat of success for the Trojans, who boast perhaps the world’s best young player in Paige Hauschild and the reigning Cutino Award winner in Amanda Longans. But that would overlook the remarkable success that the Cardinal have achieved under Head Coach John Tanner—nine straight NCAA finals appearances and five titles since 2010—and the anticipated return to health of UCLA’s Maddie Musselman, who was considered the top young player in America until Hauschild showed up.

All of which is to say that this year’s MPSF conference race may not be as obvious as advertised by the annual coaches’ poll, which crowned the Trojans as favorites and the Cardinals as a primary threat. But, beware a resurgent Bruin program under Head Coach Adam Wright, the Sun Devils of Arizona State, Cal, driven by Head Coach Coralie Simmons, the arrival of the Indiana Hoosiers as members of perhaps the world’s greatest women’s water polo league, and the fast-improving Spartans of San Jose State.

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The Trojans are the reigning champs, and they retain an impressive collection of talent, headlined by Hauschild (68 goals; new USC freshman record), Langans, and Maud Megens (37 goals after an injury-plagued 2018 season)—which makes #1 USC a clear favorite for a second-straight MPSF regular season title as well as to capture its conference tournament. Junior Denise Momolito (43 goals), whose hat trick in the NCAA final was the difference over Stanford, returns for her junior year, while 10 freshmen—headlined by lefty Grace Tehaney, a two-time All-CIF selection from Miramonte High in Orinda, CA, and Mireia Guiral, a high-scoring member of the Spanish Junior National team—join the Trojan roster.

There were significant losses to graduation; Brianna Daboub had 38 goals in 2018 and Hayley McKelvey dropped in 31 for USC. But Vavic appears to have an endless reservoir of talent mined from all over the world, and with the core of last year’s NCAA-winner intact—which in 2018 suffered but a lone early-season loss to Stanford— the Trojans will be tough to beat.

Key Matchup: Stanford, Saturday, March 30, Uytengsu Aquatics Center, LA

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The #2 Cardinal will not be ceding anything to anyone, though in the transition from Maggie Steffens (graduated in 2017) they remain in search of a new leader; perhaps a legendary family from Stanford lore will lead the team into an NCAA title match for a tenth-straight time. The Neuschul family has been Cardinal royalty; Peter and Cathy played at UC Santa Barbara but bequeathed their progeny to The Farm and it’s paid off handsomely. Daughter Kiley won NCAA titles in 2012, 2013 and 2015, while younger daughter Jamie joined her sister winning in 2015, then took home a title in 2017.

Now it’s Ryann Neushul’s turn. The freshman has already played for the U.S. Senior National Team—following her sisters’ path—and has enjoyed success at every level from club to high school to national team. She’ll join an experienced Cardinal squad, with junior Mackenzie Fischer (67 goals; Cutino Award finalist), senior Madison Berggren (36 goals), junior Kat Klass (36 goals) and Mackenzie’s younger sister Aria (35 goals as a freshman). A couple of tough losses to USC changed what looked to be a great year for the Cardinal into rare disappointment—though all the Stanford NCAA finals losses the last nine years have been to the Trojans.

There will be players missed; Jordan Raney (20 goals) was a clutch performer for Tanner, while Julia Hermann, the Cardinal’s intrepid goalie, also graduated. It will be a surprise if Stanford does not again make the NCAA final; there’s enough talent on the roster to beat anyone in the country.

Key Matchup: UCLA, Saturday, April 6, Stanford, CA

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With Wright last year assuming the reigns of #3 UCLA, which has not won a title in almost a decade, there was great hope in Westwood for a reversal of recent Bruin failure—NCAA final losses in 2014, 2015 and 2017. But the former UCLA star who has led the Bruin men to titles three of the last five years needed time and a healthy Musselman (53 goals) to change his team’s fortunes. With a year working with the women and the imminent return to play by their star scorer, a run to the top of the MPSF seems like a distinct possibility.

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

For that to happen, Wright’s experienced core—including senior Carlee Kapana, the conference’s second-best goalie, senior Lizette Rozeboom (44 goals) and junior Bronte Halligan (31 goals)—will need to mesh with newcomers Ava Johnson, Skylar Savar and Bella Wentzel, all of whom are listed as centers on the Bruin depth chart. Add in seniors Sarah Sheldon and Hannah Zari and the Bruins will be strong up the middle on defense. Luckily, only Devin Grab (27 goals) was lost to graduation; a return to form by Musselman means that a Bruin revival is to be expected.

Key Matchup: USC, April 20, Spieker Aquatics Center, LA

ASU

Last season, #5 Arizona State was on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row. Head Coach Todd Clapper is not one to stand pat; he looked to surround Maud Koopman (42 goals) and Bente Rogge (35) with a plethora of freshmen from abroad, including Rogge’s sister Lieke, Borbala Kekesi, Blaire Mcdowell and Viktoria Orlova.

Clapper’s biggest challenge is replacing goalie Mia Rycraw (6.04 GAA) who graduated last May. He has three sophomore options to choose from, only one of whom, Belen Ehinger, was on the roster last year. How quickly all the newcomers mesh will determine if the Sun Devils will make the top four of the MPSF and (likely) join the NCAA party next May.

Key Matchup: Cal Berkeley, Saturday, April 20, Berkeley, CA

cal#4 Cal Berkeley has enjoyed a pronounced revival in Head Coach Coralie Simmons first two years, finishing second in last year’s MPSF regular season and qualifying for back-to-back NCAA tournaments. Part of that success was due to the roster she inherited from former coach Richard Corso, including attacker Dora Antal (a program-best 243 goals) and fellow Hungarian Anna Illes (161 goals)—two of five All-American selections for the Golden Bears in 2018. Both Antal and Illes graduated last spring.

Luckily, junior Emma Wright (47 goals), sophomore Kitty Lynn Joustra (33 goals) and senior goalie Madison Tagg (5.20 GAA) will return after their All-American campaigns; they will be joined by newcomers Carson Broad, Jolie Trujillo, and Cynthia Mulder. Key to Cal’s season will be how quickly Simmons’ young roster—besides Tagg there are only five other seniors on a roster of 26—comes together over the course of this season.

Key Matchup: Stanford, Sunday, February 3, Stanford, CA

indiana-logoLast June Ryan Castle, #13 Indiana’s head women’s water polo coach, made a surprising pronouncement: the Hoosiers were moving from the comforts of the Collegiate Water Polo Association to the shark tank that is the MPSF. For the Midwest athletic powerhouse, this is an encouraging move, though it’s fraught with challenges. The most significant is that Indiana will play all conference matches this year on the road; Castle’s team will have seven home matches but none against MPSF opponents.

There’s also the leap in competition; in two decades of competing against the MPSF, the Hoosiers have exactly three wins in 54 attempts. They’ll go into the new season with returning scorers junior Joelle Nacouzi (30 goals, 33 assists) and Juli Hilovsky (16 goals; 28 assists). Unfortunately, Castle has lost 226 of last season 331 goals from 2018, as Karrie Kozokar (45 goals), Kelly Matthews (43 – four-time All-American selection) and Sarah Young (43) were part of an exodus of six players from last year’s roster.

Luckily, Lizzy Mandama, a freshman from Atherton, CA, looks to be an immediate contributor. She scored five goals in an 8-7 win over UC San Diego last Saturday.

Another one of the departures is goalie Jessica Gaudreault, who finished her Indiana career with 975, second all-time among Hoosier goalies. Gaudreault, one the best in program history, will be hard to replace. Junior Davis Simmons will get first crack in the Hoosier cage; waiting in the wings are freshmen Mary Askew and Sarah Greeven.

Key Matchup: Cal Berkeley, Saturday, February 2, Stanford, CA

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The beneficiary of the Hoosiers’ arrival will perhaps be the #20 Spartans of San Jose State. In the past six years, Head Coach Gabor Sarusi has logged six MPSF wins; five of those came against Cal State Bakersfield, which gave up women’s water polo after the 2017 season. The Spartans brought in Guara Garcia Delgado last season as a top-flight scorer from Puerto Rico; she led the team with 30 goals while senior Klaudia Paradi chipped in 21 goals. Both are gone; Paradi to graduation and Garcia Delgado transferring out.

San Jose has brought in nine freshmen, part of a group of 17 underclassmen on a roster of 22; Michelle Taikeff (five goals) is the lone senior. Lili Urvari (26 goals) and Tyanna Supreme (10 goals) also return, while newcomers Olga Decalzi Portell, who played for the Spanish 18U team in the European Championships, and Matilda Moore, from Queensland, Australia. All the turnover on the Spartans roster makes it hard to pick them over the Hoosiers; however, it’s a toss-up for the bottom rung of the MPSF.

Key Matchup: Indiana, Saturday, April 13, San Jose State, CA