2020 Swimming World Women’s Water Polo Previews: Big West Conference

Hawai'i won the Big West in 2019 but will be challenged by UC Irvine for a title in 2020. Photo Courtesy: Hawaii Athletics / John Fajardo

With the start of a new decade, the Big West Conference Women’s Water Polo has made significant changes to its conference: First, it has added a seventh member in UC San Diego, as the Triton’s athletic department was invited to join the Big West Conference as a part of their four-year transition from Division II to Division I athletics in NCAA Competition. The Tritons leave the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) having won 7 consecutive titles and join their sister UCs (Davis, Santa Barbara and Irvine) in the Big West. UC San Diego has plenty of experience playing Big West opponents having gone 10-19 against them over the past 4 seasons.

big-west-logo-apr-17Next, the Big West modified its conference championship tournament to align with the NCAA tournament in a single elimination format. In the past, the season ending event played off the placing with loser bracket games. The regular season champion will get a bye into the semifinals in this year’s tournament, which will be played at the Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex at the University of Hawaii. Maureen Cole’s Rainbow Wahine are the defending tournament champs and the last time they hosted the conference tournament, they also won the title. In the past 5 seasons, the host has won 3 times.

Top to bottom all seven members are nationally ranked going into the 2020 season, led by UC Irvine (#5), Hawaii (#6) and UC Davis (#10). UC Santa Barbara starts at #11, followed by UC San Diego (13), Long Beach State (15) and Cal State Northridge (22).

Team Capsules:

UCIUC Irvine, one of the founding members of the conference, is guided by head coach Dan Klatt, who begins his 16th season coaching his Alma mater. Klatt has directed the Anteaters to 296 wins while on deck for Irvine and returns a group that has won 2 of the last 3 Big West Championship tournaments and appeared in 9 of the last 10 championship games. Key returners are Senior Tara Prentice (70 goals in 2019) and Sophomore Center Piper Smith (41 goals in 2019). The Anteaters have good depth and are anchored on defense by Junior Goalie Morgan Jones, who earned 1st team All Big West in 2019.

Key Match-Up: USC, Saturday, February 15, Los Angeles, CA

hawaii-logoHonolulu native and 2019 Coach of the year Maureen Cole begins her 9th season as the head coach of Hawai’i. The Rainbow Wahine earned their third Big West title in 2019 and will miss two time player of the year Irene Gonzalez and her strong all-around play. Hawai’i also loses Femke An, Elyse Lemay-Lavoie, and Maxine Schaap  from their 2019 roster who as a group accounted for 63% of their offensive output.  Returning Spaniards Carmen Baringo (26 goals-32 assists) and Alba Bonamusa Boix (27 goals) will become the mainstays in the lineup. But Cole has restocked her roster with international players from Hungary, Serbia, New Zealand, Spain, Australia, Holland and England. Their home waters have traditionally been a difficult place to win for visitors as Hawaii is 26 – 10 in the last 5 seasons in games played at the Duke Kahanamoku aquatic complex.

Key Match-Up: UC Irvine, Friday, March 27, Honolulu, HI

uc-davis-aggiesThe UC Davis Aggies are consistently one of the top programs in the conference and led by USA Water Polo Hall of Fame coach Jamey Wright. Wright kicks off his 38th season with several key returners to a squad which was 18-13 in 2019: Freshman of the year Noelle Wijnbelt scored 49 goals in her first season and is joined by teammate Chloe Robinson who delivered 38 assists along with 31 goals last season as the leading point getter. Emily Byrne, who drew a team leading 65 exclusions and 13 penalties in 2019, returns for her senior season.

Key Match-Up: Cal-Berkeley, Saturday, February 1, Palo Alto, CA

ucsbUC Santa Barbara is coming off a strong 2019 campaign in which they were 22-9 and 3-2 in conference. Graduating from the team were dynamic attacker Kate Pipkin (45 Goals, 31 assists) and Sarah Kreisser (35 G, 26 A, 34 steals). Head Coach Serela Kay, in her sixth season, returns leading scorer Sarah Snyder (66 goals), Amanda Legaspi (41 goals, 28 drawn exclusions), and lefty Caitlyn Snyder (30 G, 33 A) from a deep lineup that includes 11 field players who appeared in all 31 games in 2019. Senior goalie Kenzi Snyder will anchor a stingy Gaucho defense which averaged 6.44 goals against in 2019.

Key Match-Up: Long Beach State, April 18, Long Beach State, CA

uc-san-diegoBrad Kruetzkamp begins his 11th season at UC San Diego with a team that last season went 22-14, won the WWPA championship for the 7th consecutive year and lost to NCAA runner up USC in the NCAA quarterfinals. The Tritons roster lost 7 seniors, but return several key contributors including the top three scorers and both starting goalies: Dual sport Junior Ciara Franke (53 goals) earned first team All American honors (Division 2) in 2019 and is also the school record holder in the 200 freestyle. Grace Pevehouse (66 goals) and Taylor Onstott (55) pace a productive offense. On the back line, the Triton keepers virtually split time in 2019. Junior Bennett Bugelli also earned First Team D2 All American and Senior Reilly Gallagher produced a goals against average of 7.58.

Key Match-Up: Cal State Northridge (CSUN), February 29, Los Angeles, CA

LBSLong Beach State enters the 2020 season looking to improve on 2019 where they were 14-15 and 1-4 in the Big West.  The Beach were led by All Big West first team selection Orsi Hertzka in 2019.  The native of Budapest, Hungary rifled in 72 goals in her first season. Goalie Eirini Patras of Greece was awarded an honorable mention on the Big West All conference team.  Head Coach Gavin Arroyo starts the new decade in his 16th year seeking to return to the Conference championship game for the first time since 2017.

Key Match-Up: UC San Diego, March 7, Long Beach, CA

csunHead coach Matt Warshaw, who kicks off his fourth season at CSUN, returns top scoring Senior Tori Wilson together with Jennalyn Barthels.  Wilson, a transfer from Hartwick, scored 63 goals and 31 assists and made 38 steals in 2019.  While Barthels, a senior from Sacramento, earned honorable mention in the Big West with 39 goals, 37 assists and 28 steals for the Matadors.  Senior attacker, Katia Andon-Mateos is coming off a career high of 36 goals and 33 assists.  Defensively, the Matadors returning goalie Emma Pfister led the Big West with 245 saves in 2019.  The Matadors are 1-14 in the past 3 seasons in Big West Conference games.

Key Match-Up: Whittier, February 15, Redlands, CA


2020 offers a number of interesting story lines. First, many of the top teams with players who are national team members will be red-shirting to train and prepare for the Tokyo Olympic Games. For example, USC has four such players.  In their absence, there will be opportunities for other players and other teams to step up.

This may result in the sort of parity which occurred during the 2019 Men’s Water Polo season which saw MPSF teams losing to GCC teams for the first time in years. Next, the arrival of UC San Diego will serve to make the Big West an even stronger conference, with every single team nationally ranked. The Tritons are in transition to Division I, and having more scholarship dollars to recruit student athletes will aid their water polo program over the next few recruiting cycles.

UC Irvine and Hawai’i have dominated the Big West the last 5 years. Both have appeared in 4 of 5 championship games and both have earned two titles in that span and both are 19-6 in regular season play.  During that interval, only UC Santa Barbara has broken through to win it in 2016.  Irvine lost only three players to graduation, notably All Big West First teamer Mary Brooks (49 goals), in 2019. But the returning cast is strong and experienced and accounted for 81% of the scoring in 2019.  In fact, they have 14 players with 2 or 3 years of experience plus Morgan Jones who played 76% of the minutes in 2019.  Hawaii will be challenged to integrate five new incoming players into their playing rotation and promote returning players to more prominent roles.  The teams split two games in 2019 by a 7-6 margin with Hawaii winning the Conference championship game.

[Q&A with Mary Brooks on Her Water Polo Passion]

There are certain to be some great battles once Big Wast conference games begin on February 29. A great example is the weekend of March 27-29:  On Friday March 27 UC Irvine plays Hawaii in Honolulu and the next day UC Santa Barbara plays at UC San Diego and Long Beach plays at Davis. Three great match-ups with conference tournament seeding implications.

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