2020 Swimming World Women’s Water Polo Previews: Mountain Pacific Sports Federation

May 11, 2019; Avery Aquatic Center, Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Women's Water Polo: NCAA Semi Finals: USC Trojans vs California Golden Bears; USC Trojan Utility Maud Megens takes a 5 meter Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne
Will no Maud Megens—training for the Olympics with the Dutch national team—be no problem for USC? Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Since the first NCAA Women’s Water Polo tournament was held in 2001, only three teams have claimed the title and all are members of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). The defending NCAA Champion Stanford has won seven, UCLA has seven, and USC has five. In the last decade though, the Cardinal has appeared in all 10 championship games, winning six.

2020 marks a new decade which in women’s water polo will be defined as much by which teams are winning as which players are missing from those teams. Unlike college swimming, where most Olympic caliber athletes will train with their university teams and compete in the NCAA championship meets in March, women’s water polo national team members from the USA and abroad who possess NCAA eligibility frequently take a red-shirt year to qualify, train, and prepare for the Olympic games. As NCAA Women’s Water Polo is considered among the highest caliber leagues in the world, it has consistently attracted dozens of national team members from around the world.

The impact on NCAA women’s water polo will be significant as key players will be absent from their teams for the 2020 season. And the MPSF, as the historically dominant conference, has more National team players than any other: By Swimming World’s count USC will lose four players, California and Stanford three, UCLA two and Arizona State one for the 2020 season. These absences will create opportunities for other players and indirectly, for other teams. The gap in talent between the teams will narrow and the possibility of upsets will increase. At this writing there have already been some notable results: UC Santa Barbara started the season by beating UCLA for the first time since 1995, and Big West newcomer UC San Diego defeated California in overtime for the first time ever.

[Here We Go Again; Upsets Aplenty on First Full Weekend of NCAA Women’s Water Polo Season]

This apparent parity does not guarantee that a team outside the MPSF will win the NCAA championship, but it seems to suggest that there will be many more results which go against the norms of the past two decades of women’s water Polo.

Team Capsules

uscPreseason #1 USC went through a tumultuous 2019 season when head coach Jovan Vavic was dismissed in March when he was indicted in the Operation Varsity Blues FBI investigation. The Trojans, led by interim head coach Casey Moon, produced a 28-2 record, with the only 2 losses to rival Stanford by identical 9-8 scores, one in overtime the other in the NCAA final.  They also won the MPSF final against Stanford in sudden victory thanks to Paige Hauschild.  For 2020, Marko Pintaric is their head coach and will preside over an experienced group which includes All-Americans Kelsey McIntosh (34 goals in 2019), Denise Mammalito (29 goals). Utility Bayley Weber returns for her sophomore year after making the All-MPSF team as a freshman. Missing from the 2020 college season for the Trojans will be national team players Paige Hauschild (U.S.), Tilly Kearns (Australia), Maud Megens (Netherlands), and Alejandra Aznar (Spain). The Trojans also have to replace four time All-American Goalie Amanda Longan, who graduated in 2019. Pintaric has four goalies on his roster to choose from, including freshman Carolyne Stern, who is a member of the US Youth National Team.

Key Matchup: March 20 at Stanford (Pac-12 Network @ 4:00 PM)

stanfordDefending NCAA Champion Stanford was ranked 2nd in the preseason coaches poll and will have new faces in its lineup in 2020.  The Cardinal will be anchored by Sarah Klass (42 goals) and 2nd team All-American goalie Emalia Echelberger.  Head Coach John Tanner starts his 23rd year on The Farm without national teamers Kat Klass, Makenzie Fischer, her sister Aria, and Ryann Neushul.  This group accounted for 8 of the 9 goals in the 2019 NCAA championship game. The elder Fischer won the Cutino Award in 2019 and was instrumental in their 6th NCAA title of the decade.  Neushul (MPSF newcomer of the year) had a superb freshman campaign including the game winning goal in the championship game.  The 2020 roster shows that 11 of the 17 players as underclassmen including six freshmen.   The Cardinal will test themselves with five tournament appearances to begin the season, culminating in the Barbara Kalbus Invitational in Irvine in late February.  The schedule guarantees several match-ups with top ten teams including Califonia and UC Irvine, plus the Kalbus tournament which usually includes the entire top 10.

Key Matchup: March 29 vs USC (Pac -12 Networks)

uclaHead Coach Adam Wright will lead the UCLA Bruins into the season without 1st team All American Maddie Musselman (61 goals) and Aussie Bronte Halligan (34 G, 39 steals) as they spend the 2020 season red-shirting in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.  The Bruins also lost starting goalie Carlee Kapana to graduation.  A pair of sophomores, Val Ayala (35 goals) and Ava Johnson (20) will lead the offense. Contenders to start in goal include junior Jahmea Bent and redshirt freshman Georgia Phillips. Utility Abbi Hill follows her sisters Sami (’15) and Kodi (’17) to Westwood from Santa Barbara to begin her Bruin career. This will be Wright’s third season leading the women’s team, and he will be challenged to put together a rotation of players from a roster which includes 17 players in their first of second year of college competition.

Key Matchup: April 18 at USC (Pac 12 Networks)

calThe California Golden Bears are also impacted by the 2020 Olympic games, with center Kitty Lynn Joustra (Netherlands), attackers Elli Protopapas (Greece), and Emma Wright (Canada) sitting out the season.  Joustra (34 goals) earned 1st team All American in 2019, while Wright (67 goals) was 2nd team, and graduated goalie Madison Tagg, who led the MPSF in saves per game, made the 3rd team. Coralie Simmons, beginning her fourth year in Berkeley as Head Coach, has added 10 freshmen to her roster, including Cecily Turner of England, and Sophie Leggett of Santa Barbara. The Bears were 14-1 against non MPSF teams in 2019 and lost in overtime in the NCAA semifinals to USC. Attacker Brigit Mulder (42 goals, 33 assists) will return to lead the California offense and Cassidy Ball should take over in goal for the Golden Bears.

Key Matchup: April 11 at Stanford (Pac-12 Networks)

ASUArizona State went 14-12 last year, including a 1-5 record in MPSF play—the Sun Devils worst record in conference play since 2011. To change the script on last season, Head Coach Todd Clapper first has to replace some considerable losses. Maud Koopman (58 goals in 2019; 180 for ASU career) graduated and is now training with the Dutch national team. Also on that squad; Bente Rogge (48 goals) who has forgone her senior year at ASU. Bridget Johnson, last year’s primary goalie (109 saves) did not return. Belen Ehinger (29 saves in three appearances; 9.67 saves per game) is the most experienced of three goalies on Clapper’s roster. Two key returning players for the Sun Devils are junior Amira Van Buren (29 goals) and Hungarian sophomore Borbala Kekesi (14 goals, 6 assists and 7 steals). The Sun Devils also added six freshman, including goalkeeper Itzahiana Baca, a member of the 2018 Olympic Development Program and attacker Alison Cameron, a member of the Canadian squad that won bronze at the Youth Women’s Pan-American Championships. Junior college transfer Emma Fraser who helped Santa Barbara City College win the CCCAA state championship in 2017 and 2018 is also a newcomer to ASU.

Key Matchup: April 4 vs California in Tempe, AZ

sjsSan Jose State has a new head coach and a new pool. Beth Harberts, a former Spartan two-time All-American, assumes the reins for a squad that went 2-4 in conference play and finished sixth in the MPSF tournament. The Spartans return Hungarian sophomore Olga Descalzi, who led the MPSF freshman class in scoring last year with 57 goals. Harberts will also have lefty Lili Urvari (32 goals, 16 assists), Tyanna Supreme (33 goals) and goalie Hannah Henry (22 appearances, 187 saves). There are three freshmen on the Spartan roster, Zsofia Botka, an attacker from Hungary, Bailey Stubblefield, from Oaks Christian High School and Lior Ben David from Israel who just finished competing at the 2020 European Championships. The Spartan Recreation and Aquatic Center (SRAC), a state of the art aquatics facility, opened last year.

Key Matchup: April 19 vs Indiana in San Jose, CA

indiana-logoIn beginning its second season in the MPSF, Indiana has retained everyone from last year’s winless conference campaign—except its coach. Last May Ryan Castle—who had steered the Hoosiers out of the Collegiate Water Polo Association—was not retained. Taylor Dodson, his top assistant  was elevated to head coach. Key to the Hoosiers success in 2020 are a trio of sophomores. Tina Doherty (42 goals, 36 assists) led the team in scoring; Izzy Mandema (28 goals, team-high 69 drawn exclusions) will back Doherty up, and Mary Askew (71 saves in 12 appearances) will be Dodson’s primary goalie. There are nine freshmen on the Hoosier roster, including a couple of foreign-born players. Robyn Greenslade is a 6-0 center from England, while Berta Pascual is an attacker from Barcelona. Zoe Crouch of Campolindo High School and Rebecca Schofield from Mother McAuley High School, a polo powerhouse in Chicago, are also additions to Dodson’s young roster.

Key Matchup: March 28 vs Arizona State in Bloomington, IN

[On The Record with Taylor Dodson, Indiana Head Women’s Water Polo Coach]

Outlook:

With virtually all the contenders playing with new lineups and without significant past contributors, the 2020 season is sure to deliver surprises, upsets, and exciting games. Expect to see teams from other conferences, especially the Big West, challenge the MPSF history of supremacy both in inter-conference matchups as well as the NCAA tournament.  It is not a certainty that the top 4 seeds in the NCAA tournament will be occupied exclusively by MPSF members.  New faces will take time to gel with their teammates, coaching staffs will make adjustments to both the personnel they are coaching and the opposition they are coaching against.

Indiana will make five trips to California during the season and will play 12 games there plus the Conference tournament in San Jose.  San Jose State looks to improve from a 2-4 conference record in 2019.  Arizona State returns only seven players and 20% of the goals scored to its 2020 group. California and UCLA will be young and expected to improve throughout the season.

Even though USC and Stanford lose 9 key players between them to either the Olympics or graduation, it’s hard to conceive of an MPSF conference final that doesn’t include them both.  This conference has produced the NCAA champion for 19 consecutive seasons and 2020 will be no different.

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