2019 Women’s Water Polo Preview: The Big West Conference

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A happy group of Anteaters! UCI wins the 2018 Big West title; can they hold off Hawai'i—and everyone else—this season? Photo Courtesy: UC Irvine 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.

The intrigue of last year’s Big West Championship final has carried into this season–thanks to a tie in the initial pre-season CWPA poll for women’s varsity polo. Hawai’i swept undefeated to the 2018 regular season title—as well as a 21-5 record—only to drop an epic sudden-death overtime decision to the UC Irvine in the title match.

big-west-logo-apr-17Coming into this season, Anteater and Rainbow Wahine faithful have good reasons to believe their team will capture the Big West title and advance to NCAAs—as well as why fans of the UC Davis Aggies, the 49ers of Long Beach State or the Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara might hope to crash the Anteater / Wahine party and snatch the Big West crown. Expecting a title run by the Matadors of California State University at Northridge (CSUN) is perhaps too much to expect a year after Maddie Sanchez, the greatest scorer in Big West history, graduated.

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By almost every measure—except one—2018 was a great season for #6 (T) Hawai’i women’s water polo. Head Coach Maureen Cole saw her team achieve big wins, including multiple victories over Arizona State, behind Irene Gonzales (53 goals), Chloe Barr (47), Elyse Lemay-Lavoie (41), and goalie Ymane Hage (6.75 GAA).

Gonzales, the 2018 Big West Player of the Year and an All-American Honorable Mention, will be back; she’s already picked up where she left off last year with 11 goals at the Hawai’i Invitational this past weekend. Lemay-Lavoie has also returned and will be a big part of an offense that also returns senior Femke Aan (37 goals).

But Barr, Hage and three other seniors graduated last spring, while Maartje Keuning (40 goals) returned to her native Holland. To fill in the gaps, Cole has restocked with 10 freshmen—most notably, goalies Bridget Layburn, Madeline Pease and Crystal Valtierra in case returning sophomore Molly DeLalla—who split starts with Hage last year—is not up to the task.

A couple of attackers from abroad—New Zealander Bernadette Doyle and Emma van Rostum from Holland—will provide a lift to the Hawai’i attack, But the best bit of news this season is that, unlike last year, the Anteaters won’t host in 2019. Long Beach State will.

Key Matchup: UC Irvine, Friday, April 5, Irvine, CA

Last year Dan Klatt’s #6 (T) UC Irvine team started off with a significant deficit; Mary Brooks, the 2016 and 2017 Big West Player of the Year who was knocking on the door of the national team line-up, chose to red-shirt for the year. Despite this significant loss, the Anteaters hung tough upset top-seeded Hawai’i in the Big West final and helped Klatt earn his seventh Big West Coach of The Year award in 10 years.

Well, guess who’s back to lead UCI in 2019? In previous seasons, Brooks generated 66 goals in 2017—leading the Anteaters to the NCAA tournament—and 55 in 2016. But the returning senior will not be alone on offense or defense. Klatt’s team returns junior Tara Prentice (41 goals) and he’s brought in four freshmen attackers, the most prominent of which is Piper Smith, an accomplished scorer from Santa Barbara.

It’s in goal where UCI may be toughest again this year after a conference low 161 goals against. Senior goalie Jenna Phreaner returns after a strong 2018 campaign that saw her achieve All-Big West First Team, record 187 saves in 22 starts, and finish as MVP of the Big West Championships. Right behind Phreaner on the Anteater depth chart is sophomore Morgan Jones, who is sure to see a lot of action; she was in the UCI cage this weekend in a match against #14 Wagner.

Key Matchup: UCLA, Saturday, February 16, Los Angeles, CA

uc-davis-aggiesIt’s not fair to overlook #10 UC Davis; they may not have the big names like Gonzales and Brooks but they have Head Coach Jamey Wright, whose record of success speaks for itself. The Aggies haven’t gone to NCAAs in a decade, and Wright has to hope that a strong start last season—UC Davis was 18-8 and the #2 seed in the conference before a season-ending four-match losing slide—is indicative of what to expect in 2019.

[Five Questions for Jamey Wright of UC Davis Women’s Water Polo]

Annie Kutt (36 goals, 48 assists; both team highs) and Kathleen Schafle (33 goals)—who keyed last season’s strong start—return. Paige Virgil, picked as an All-American Honorable Mention for leading the Aggies with 56 goals, 38 assists and 34 steals, was lost to graduation, as was Greta Kohlmoos (42 goals). To replace the lost offense, Wright has brought in eight freshmen to mix in with his 15 upper classmen. Key newcomers include Noel Wijnbelt, a towering center from Foothills High School, and Hailey Williams, and equally tall (6-2) attacker who is from St. Mary’s Prep in Lodi, CA.

Goalie is covered by junior Caitlin Golding, who started 29 of 30 matches, made 221 saves and compiled a 9.2 GAA. There’s help from a couple of freshmen—Lauren Hooyer and Sophia Noble—as well as Cleopatra Constantin who backed up Golding in 2018. A fast start—and better finish—may get Wright and his squad back to NCAAs.

Key Matchup: Stanford, Friday, April 19, Stanford, CA

LBSRight on the Aggies’ heels—at least according to the rankings—are the 49ers of Long Beach State. Fresh off of being named 2018 Golden Coast Conference Men’s Coach of the Year, Head Coach Gavin Arroyo comes to the women’s season with a core of experienced seniors and aspirational freshman that will look to blend together over the course of the season.

Senior attacker Tori Morrissey (30 goals; team-high 46 points; First Team All-Big West) leads the returning group that includes Maria Eleni Mimidi (29 goals) and Annabel Harman (19).

Arroyo will look to replace scoring lost by graduation of Alexandra Massier (team-high 42 goals), Virginia Smith (35 goals; team-high 35 steals) and Raney Remme (18 goals). Key to this transition are newcomers Orsi Hertzka, a Hungarian junior national team player, and goalies Carter Hawkins and Melany Marquez—both of whom will back up senior starter Eirini Patras (132 saves; 6.72 GAA). In fact, defense was the 49ers greatest attribute; in 2018 they gave up a paltry 6 goals per game, second in The Big West to Hawai’i. Can they keep that up in 2019?

Key Matchup: UC Santa Barbara, Saturday, April 20, Santa Barbara, CA

ucsbWith a strong start to their season already—the Gauchos are 4-1 after hosting their own tournament this past weekend—perhaps this is the season for UC Santa Barbara to move up the Big West ladder. Junior Sarah Snyder, who in 2018 led the team with 49 goals, and seniors Kate Pipkin (44 goals, 35 assists; team-high 79 points) and Sarah Kreiser (44 goals, 33 steals) return; together they accounted for 134 of the Gauchos’ 251 goals.

Add in some impact players, including sophomore Sami Stebbins, transfer Dara Bleiberg (from George Washington) and freshmen Amanda Legaspi plus Sarah Owens; perhaps this is the year that Head Coach Serela Kay (fifth year at UCSB) gets her team back to The Big West title match for the first time since beating Hawai’i in the 2015 final.

Key Matchup: Hawai’i, Saturday, April 13, Santa Barbara, CA

csun#18 California State at Northridge Head Coach Matt Warshaw has a tall task; replacing Sanchez, the greatest goal scorer in conference history. With 229 goals—including 54 in just 25 matches—the now-graduated Matador set a high bar for whoever succeeds her at CSUN.

[Five Questions for Matt Warshaw, CSUN Head Women’s Water Polo Coach]

That replacement may come in the person of Tori Wilson. A transfer from Hartwick, the Ontario native was virtually unstoppable on offense, scoring 85 goals and 58 assists. She’ll join a Matador squad that returns junior Madasonne Butler (20 goals; 35 exclusions drawn). Unfortunately, the next three leading scorers behind Sanchez—Katelyn Fairchild (49 goals), Shannon Hovanesian (28 goals; team-high 40 assists and 53 steals) and Paula Abellan Garcia (21)—also graduated; together they combined for 152 of CSUN’s 260 goals.

Warshaw has 10 upperclassmen and just two freshman; luckily, one of those returners is netminder Emma Pfister (8.24 GAA in 12 appearances); the sophomore is the only goalie on Warshaw’s roster now that Niki Van Vugt (216 saves) has also received her diploma.

Key Matchup: Cal State East Bay, Saturday, April 12, Hayward, CA