In Quarterfinal Action at the 2019 Women’s Water Polo Tournament, The Big Four Are Now The Final Four

Stanford's Madison Beggren in actin against Pacific at the 2019 NCAA Women's Water Polo Tournament. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Editor’s Note: The 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament is happening this week—and Swimming World has you covered! Keep up with all the action online or look for #SwimmingWorld on Twitter and other social media platforms.

STANFORD, CA. A full day of action under ideal conditions in Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center produced entirely predictable results, as the nation’s top four squads prevailed in quarterfinal action at the 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament.

2019-ncaa-wwp-logo-apr19Wins by top-seeded USC, number 2 seed and host Stanford, third seed UCLA and California, the fourth-seeded team, underscore how dominant these Mountain Pacific Sports Federation teams are now—and have been since the NCAA sanctioned a national championship match in 2001. In the intervening years of play, only once has a non-MPSF squad advanced to an NCAA final, when Loyola Marymount faced Southern Cal in 2004. The Lions lost 10-8 to the Trojans, now the defending national champions, who captured the first of the program’s five national titles.

USC trails UCLA’s seven and Stanford six titles; these are the only three teams to have hoist NCAA women’s water polo championship hardware.

[2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Final Four Set: USC vs. Cal; Stanford vs. UCLA]

#1 USC 14 (27-1), UC San Diego 8 (21-15)

The Trojans, who are seeking back-to-back titles for the first time in program history, struggled for the first two periods against a feisty UC San Diego team before a six-goal outburst in the third period sealed a surprisingly competitive 14-8 victory for USC.

Leading the way with three goals and three assists was freshman Alejandra AznarElise Stein and Verica Bakoc (2 goals apiece) also helped fuel the Trojan attack. Despite his team’s slender one goal lead midway through the second period, Interim Head Coach Casey Moon never changed his demeanor, a drastic change from Jovan Vavic, his more demonstrative predecessor.

USC’s Maud Megens agains UC San Diego. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

“Every single game, we always try to do the little things right,” Moon said in the press conference following his team’s match.  [When we struggle] it’s lack of execution.

We’ve got to play stress-free. This idea of frustration is the enemy of any athlete, regardless of that the score is, regardless if we have any unlucky bounces our way…. our cornerstone for this entire season has been: Next play, next play.”

For UCSD, who made their seventh-straight appearance in NCAAs, Grace Pevehouse tallied five goals, including a score with three and a half minutes remaining in the second period that drew the Tritons within 4-3 of the heavily favored Trojans. For UCSD Head Coach Brad Kreutzkamp, this unexpected good fortune was memorable—taking him back to a 2004 match against a USC squad that went on to the national championship.

“I’ve been in that position twenty years ago against this very same team,” he said. “It felt like: This can happen here. We’re getting excited, there’s some heads hanging down on the other bench.

“But you can’t just play two good quarter against USC. You gotta play all four.”

USC settled their sinking attack, outscoring UC San Diego 8-1 over the next period and a half to take a commanding 12-4 lead entering the fourth quarter, and cruised to a victory.

#4 Cal 17 (17-8); Hawai’i 13 (18-6)

With the win, the Trojans advance to a meeting against Cal, which took a surprising 17-13 decision over Hawai’i—surprising because these two defensive-minded teams, which had met last month in a 7-6 win by the host Rainbow Wahine in Honolulu, scored 11 goals in a frenetic first period which ended with the Golden Bears holding a 6-5 lead. Tied at eight by intermission, Cal scored on its first three possession of the third period, causing Hawai’i Head Coach Maureen Cole to pull starting goalie Molly Di Lalla in favor of freshman Bridget Layburn.

But nothing could stem the Cal attack. The Golden Bears continued their assault on the Rainbow Wahine cage sprinting to a 17-11 lead, when a couple of meaningless goals made the score somewhat more respectable.

One-time Bruins now opponents: Cal’s Coralie Simmons and Hawai’i’s Maureen Cole. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Leading the way for Head Coach Coralie Simmons squad was Emma Wright, with four goals and five assists. Center Kitty Lynn Joustra was deadly in front of the Hawai’i cage, scoring three goals on three shots, and it was Wright who set the tone for the Golden Bears’ victory, the third quarterfinals win in Simmons’ three years leading the program.

“With the NCAA tournament, one thing that pushes teams is [that]: every game could be your last,” Wright said after the match. “Going into this game our mentality was: We have to come out firing or else we go home.

“Personally, I wanted to come out and shoot as much as possible because whenever I get an opportunity I’m looking for the net.”

Hawai’i Head Coach Maureen Cole was clearly disappointed by the outcome, but deflected any blame for her team’s showing on an incident Wednesday night, when vans the teams were traveling in were broken into, and players’ personal effects, including passports, being stolen. She was at a loss regarding an offensive explosion that belied and even matchup going in; the two teams had met three times prior and the difference between them was four total goals, but for her fatigue was not the culprit in her team’s loss.

“I don’t think they were too tired during the game because there were goals on almost every possession,” she quipped, then added: “Of course there was a bit of distraction this week but the goal was the game, and we were so excited to be here.

“Every ounce of energy they mustered up they put it out there,” Cole added.

[On The Record with Maureen Cole, Head Coach of Hawai’i Women’s Water Polo]

A bright spot for the Rainbow Wahine was the outstanding performances of Elyse Lemay-Lavoie, who tallied six goals on six shots, and Maxine Schaap, who netted two scores. Their offensive outburst could not overcome an uncharacteristically poor performance from Hawai’i’s goalies, who recorded a mere four saves while permitting a season-high in goals allowed.

The loss closes what has been a triumphant year for the Rainbow Wahine, who beat UC Irvine in the 2019 Big West title match to avenge a stunning 8-7 loss in sudden death overtime to the Anteaters in last year’s Big West final.

#1 Stanford 18 (21-2); Pacific 9 (17-9)

Host Stanford cruised to a comfortable 18-9 victory over Pacific. The Tigers, whose head coach, James Graham, has often devised innovative defenses to thwart opponent’s high-powered offensives, was at a loss against a Cardinal attack that has averaged 16 goals a game in 2019. Aria Fischer tallied a game-high five goals—she now has 29 goals over Stanford’s last nine matches—as the home team sprinted out to a 10-4 lead at the half and was never headed.

Stanford Head Coach John Tanner was pleased by his team’s performance, and specific that the most challenging task—advancing to the national championship game tomorrow—was well within reach for his talented group.

“When you get to a game like this it’s all on the line and they’re going to fight to the end,” Tanner said. “We knew we’d need to be persistent.

Cal’s Madison Tagg against Hawai;i. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

“These guys come to Stanford for moments like this, so when you talk about expectations, they feel like: This is why I came here.”

The loss—a third straight for Pacific in NCAA quarterfinals—did not dampen the enthusiasm of graduating senior Viktori Szmodics (2 goals), who has enjoyed a spectacular career playing for the Tigers. Over her four years in Stockton, the native of Hungary tallied 151 goals and 134 assists as the squad won three straight Golden Coast Conference title during her career.

“We are all part of the process here, [and] we’re trying to push the program one step forward each year,” she said after the match. “People come and go but we’re trying to carry on the program’s fundamental values.

“It’s been really great to be a Tiger!”

#3 UCLA 13 (24-6); Michigan 7 (23-9)

In the day’s final match, hope persisted that the established MPSF order might be overthrown. With a minute and a half remaining in the opening period, Michigan took a 3-2 lead over third-seed UCLA, and appeared to have the favored Bruins on the defensive. But, with their backs to the wall—as described by Head Coach Adam Wright—UCLA did what it does best: play suffocating defense.

Shutting down the Wolverine attack over most of the next quarter, the Burins used a pair of goals from Maddie Musselman (game-high four) and Bronte Halligan (three goals) along with a score from Kelsey Blacker to turn a one-goal deficit into a four-goal lead.

After the match, Wright spoke about what it will take to get to a national championship match, a task that used to be a regular occurrence for the Bruins, who, have more titles than any other program.

“Our backs were against the wall from a defensive standpoint or we didn’t hit some shots early when we should have… but it’s big because that’s what we’re going to see going forward,” the Bruins’ said.

Speaking of Stanford, his team’s opponent on Saturday, Wright who has won three national titles with the UCLA men, expressed confidence in the chances of his women’s team.

UCLA’s Maddie Musselman against Michigan. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

“We were one stop away from winning the game here five weeks ago—being down four-nothing,” then he added: “It is important that we come out with the right energy and focus.”

Michigan was led by Julia Sellers and Maddy Steere with two goals apiece. Wolverine Head Coach Marcelo Leonardi, who earlier in the day was sporting a custom-made jersey from his school’s famous football program, spoke of how far his program has progress—but also how much further it must travel if it wants to join the ranks of the nation’s best.

“When I first took over the program, we were out of the top 20,” he said after the match. “Now we’re in the position where we’ve tasted a Final Four, and as a program we’re expected to be here.

“The more time you’re here, the more familiarity you have with [the tournament] … the more the wins seem reachable.”

A Final Four is out of reach this year for Hawai’i, Michigan, Pacific and UC San Diego but there’s always next year.