2020 Swimming World Women’s Water Polo Previews: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

wagner-maac-apr19
Wagner celebrated a MAAC title in 2019—the program's 6th straight—but now Chris Radmonovich is out of the picture. Photo Courtesy: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

The abrupt resignation of Chris Radmonovic, last July from the Wagner men’s and women’s program, resulted in a seminal shift for the best water polo team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). The Seahawks have won the past six conference crowns, and are favored to repeat in the 2020 preseason coaches’ poll.

maac-logo-apr-17Without Radmonovich, as well as the graduation of some key members of last year’s squad that extended a conference winning streak that reached 57 until ended by conference decree, it appears that Wagner is vulnerable. Marist and Iona will have at least two opportunities to unseat the Seahawks; the remainder of the conference will likely be fighting for the MAAC’s fourth and final playoff spot. Following is a listing of the MAAC squads as decided in their preseason poll.

[Radmonovich Steps Down After Nine Superb Years Leading Wagner Water Polo]

Team Capsules

wagnerFollowing Radmonovich’s departure, Ciaran Wolohan, his top assistant, took over the Wagner men’s and women’s squads. Last fall the Seahawk men took a step back, partially due to the departure of select players, and finished 8-23 and fifth in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference. That the Wagner women will not regress as their brethren did will likely be due to the return of Sofia Diaz Alvarez. A preseason pick for MAAC player of the year, Diaz Alvarez (109 goals, 48 assists, 83 steals) will be the engine that drives the Seahawks. Losing the MAAC’s top scorer—Erica Hardy notched 86 goals and 74 assists and was named 2019 MAAC Offensive Player of the Year—and Kristy Donkin (58 goals, 99 assists) will be substantial, but Wagner scored a record 615 goals, 150 more than the 2018 Seahawk squad, Other returners for Wolohan include Jacqui Sjogren (91 goals, 122 exclusions drawn), Savannah Henshaw (46 goals, 35 assists, 43 steals) and junior Katherine Campbell, who in 38 appearances made 203 saves with an 8.43 goals against average. Among the four freshmen on Wagner’s roster, Skye Nankervis competed for the Australian junior national team, while Abbey Simshauser is also an attacker from Down Under.

Key Match Up: Princeton, February 15, Princeton, NJ

The team that could profit from Wagner’s coaching change is Marist. The Red Foxes have not beaten the Seahawks in almost five years (April 2015); they came close last year, dropping a one-goal decision at the LMU Invitational last March. But they still lost decisively in last season’s MAAC final; that makes it six-straight second place finishes. Head Coach Chris Vidale returns Carsen Horvatich (196 saves, 9.45 goals against average), selected the conference’s best goalie in 2019, Anais Mathes (45 goals, 20 assists), a preseason player of the year pick and Justin Castro (27 goals, 29 assists). Missing from this year’s roster are Katherine Tijerina (36 goals, 29 assists), and Grace Doerfler (47 goals, 28 exclusions drawn) both of whom graduated. Jocelyn Castro—who chipped in 20 goals last year for the Red Foxes—is back as an assistant on Vidale’s staff. She’ll be working with seven freshmen, notably being India Alter of Agoura High School in Woodlands, California, and Fallon Burnworth of West Hills High School in San Diego.

Key Match Up: Wagner, February 22, Poughkeepsie, NY

IonaIona has had a Schultz steering the offense for the previous five years. First, it was Hannah, who from 2015-18 scored a program-record 379 goals. Then, in 2019 sister Jillian led the Gaels with 74 goals and 92 exclusions drawn on her way to being named to the All-MAAC Second Team as a freshman. But, that’s the end of the Schultz legacy at Iona, for now. Jillian was last seen playing in the fall for Long Beach City College—a long way from New Rochelle. Iona Head Coach Brian Kelly still has Jordan Van Reeken (72 goals, 69 exclusions drawn, All-MAAC First Team), goalie Jordin Hale (31 starts, 303 saves, 10.75 goals against average, All-MAAC Second Team), Maeve Wydan (34 goals, 26 assists) and Laura Rockett (22 goals, 36 exclusions drawn). Taylor Hensley (25 goals, 24 exclusions drawn). graduated last spring; Kelly brought in one new offensive player to offset the loss of Schultz and Hensley, who accounted for almost 40% of the Gaels’ 287 goals scored in 2019. Mia Tovar is from Portland, Oregon, where she played for Lincoln High School.

Key Match Up: Villanova, April 4, New Rochelle, NY

lasalle-logoWhat a difference a coach can make. Prior to the 2019 season, La Salle was picked for last in the MAAC. Tom Hyham—named 2019 MAAC Coach of the Year—guilded the Explorers to a program-best 10 wins, including five in the MAAC. Now, his peers have determined that Hyham and La Salle will qualify for the post-season for the first time ever. Leading the Explorer attack is Sarah DeFusco (92 goals, 33 assists, 38 steals), a performance that earned the transfer from Pacific All-MAAC Second Team recognition. Jenny Fermaintt (199 saves), a converted defender, will return in goal for La Salle, but Emma Gurasich, a 6-1 goalie from Ernest McBride High School in Long Beach, California, will likely see a lot of playing time. She’s one of eight freshmen that Hyham, who was a long-time club and high school coach in Southern California before coming East, has brought in to remake the program. Sophie Appler comes from Wilson High School in Reading, PA and was named Pennsylvania’s Miss Water Polo. Casey Malone from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, CA will also help the Explorer offense, which relied on DeFusco and Madison Martinez (57 goals, 28 assists) for half of the teams 288 goals scored last season.

Key Match Up: Marist, March 27, Philadelphia, PA

vmi-logoAt some point this season, Isabel French of Virginia Military Academy will break the MAAC’s all-time saves record, set by Wagner’s Katie Hauck (1,050) in 2007. The junior from Naperville, Illinois, led the conference in 2019 with 343 saves, and already has 902 stops in her Keydets career. It’s no coincidence that the three-best seasons in VMI’s eight-year history were backstopped by French and VMI’s defense. But, she’s had help on offense. McKenna Imset (88 goals, 20 assists, 56 exclusions drawn) returns for her sophomore year, as does Emma Perez (25 goals, 41 assists) and Makenna Moore (18 goals, 35 assists). Head Coach Ryan Pryor has recruited four freshmen, all from California. Most notable: Sydney Shettleroe from Los Angeles; an All-CIF selection as a freshman at South Pasadena High School who also played for Rose Bowl. The newcomers will look to replace now-graduated Sarah Dolitsky’s production (75 goals, 23 assists) but likely not her unmatchable energy.

Key Match Up: Iona, March 29, Lexington, VA

villanova-logoLike Hyham, Villanova’s Larry Sanders is a West Coast transplant. And, like his now-Philadelphia neighbor, he’s looking to remake a program—though in Villanova’s case, the Wildcats had been a regular participant in the MAAC playoffs until three years ago. Leading the charge for the Sanders team is Kaysie Stuba (76 goals, 31 assists, team-high 107 points, All-MAAC Second Team). Teaming with Stuba is Charlotte Curran (52 goals, 22 assists) and Malia Gacutan (19 goals, 43 assists, 32 steals). In goal, Rachel Jennings (103 saves) returns for her junior season. She will look to pick up the slack from goalie  Gaby Palmisano, who didn’t return for her sophomore year. Kate Stenmoen (60 goals, 27 steals) graduated. Notable freshmen: Allie Hanson of Friendswood, Texas and Emily Morrison of Ambler, Pennsylvania.

Key Match Up: La Salle, April 18, Villanova, PA

siena-saints-logoAfter just two years, Tamara Perea has moved on from Siena; stepping into the Saints’ head coaching job is Alex Williams, formerly an assistant to Brian Kelly at Iona. He takes over a program that returns Diana Fernandez (64 goals, 32 assists, 34 steals, first-ever All-American at Siena) and Sophia Torres (31 goals, 29 assists) from a squad that went 9-23 last year—2-12 in conference play—and dropped 15 of its last 17 games. Williams is descended from the hyper-successful San Diego coaching tree, having coached at Torrey Pines High Schools and for under Doug Peabody at the San Diego Shores club. He’ll bring in six freshmen—doubling his roster to 12—most notable being goalies Sydney Jones and Anna Mossakowski to replace Kennedy Joseph (163 saves) and Nicole Feldtz (89 saves), both of whom graduated.

[On The Record with Alex Williams, Siena Women’s Water Polo New Head Coach]

Key Match Up: St. Francis Brooklyn, February 22, Poughkeepsie, NY

StFrancisBrooklynTerriersThe Terriers will be led this season by Alana Burgess, who spent last season assisting Bora Dimitrov for a St. Francis Brooklyn squad that counts a sturdy 13 players. For a team that has under-performed for more than a decade, bringing on a coach with a winning background in the highly competitive San Diego polo scene is a step forward. A crop of five freshmen, including two goalies, will continue the program’s transformation—one that will go forward without one of the most prolific scorers in program history. Over two seasons in Brooklyn Heights, Kelsey Snelgar racked up 224 goals, including a St. Francis record of 121 last year. Unfortunately, Snelgar departed for Loyola Marymount—taking with her almost half of the team’s total of 278 goals. To pick up the scoring slack, Burgess has brought in Emma Leto of South Broward High School in Hollywood, Florida, Najhe London of Pearland High School in Pearland, Texas, Thea Simpson from England and goalie Inbar Geva, who is on the Israeli national team roster . Erin Gonzalez (26 goals—second on the squad) and goalie Marycatherine McKendry (178 saves, 10.32 GAA) both return from last years’ 7-21 squad that went 4-10 in MAAC play.

Key Match Up: San Diego State, February 16, Princeton, NJ

LIU_Sharks_JAN20There was quite a bit of fanfare surrounding Long Island University’s entry into the MAAC conference. Hiring local age group coach Gabby Juarez, who played at UCLA and for the legendary Commerce Water Polo Club that counts Brenda Villa as an alum, the Sharks enter play with a blank slate and the questions that typically surround a new program. Key to any success LIU enjoys in 2020 will be the play of goalies Rebecca Ansell and Julia Zebak. Ansell is a South African who has national team experience, while Sebak played for the Edmonton Water Polo Club as well as trained with the Canadian junior national team. On offense, Juarez has brought in Canadian Jessica Dean, South African Kate Hinrichs—who represented her country in the 2019 FINA Woeld Championships—and Taylor Thurlow of Waterloo, Ontario. With a roster of 12, the long season—the Sharks will play 29 matches, not including possible post-season competition—will be a factor.

Key Match Up: St. Francis, Brooklyn, April 11, Brooklyn, NY

Outlook:

The MAAC is pretty simple this year; whoever figures out how to beat Wagner can be the conference champs, ending not only a remarkable string of success but sending a different MAAC team to the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years. And, if Diaz Alvarez, an Honorable Mention All-American and the first Seahawk woman to register 100+ goals, had followed Radmonovic out the door, that would be likely.

But a team that has had as much success as Wagner—no MAAC side has beaten the Seahawks in five years; their only loss came on a technicality when the conference declared a forfeit for a match that was not played—will not just crumble when the architect of their success departs. Wolohan, who played under Radmonivich for two years and coached with him for one, will provide a steady hand of transition for a still-deep Wagner squad. Marist will challenge, but their issue is scoring; in the 2019 MAAC title match, they went long stretches where the Seahawks bottled them up, leading to a lopsided 8-4 loss. If Horvatich and her back-up Marina Hyham get a lead, they should be able to hold it; that may not happen in matches against an aggressive Seahawk squad (Diaz Alvarez had 94 steals last season; in four games this year she already has 11).

The loss of Jillian Schultz at Iona is about more than goals; her family—from Chicago, like Iona coach Kelly—has been Gael royalty. Any Iona struggle this season will likely be a attributed to her absence. If La Salle makes the leap to postseason play, it will be a remarkable turnaround for a program that just two years ago went winless and was in the midst of a 37-match losing streak. Hyham has not only brought talent to a program that desperately needed it, his focus and upbeat personality has transformed the Explorers’ culture.

VMI, Villanova, Siena and St. Francis Brooklyn will all fight to squeeze into the MAAC playoff picture. Of this group, the Keysets may be most likely to succeed, if only because French gives them a chance in every game, and her teammates know full well what she expects from them. Sanders is a year behind Hyham in his rebuild at Villanova; another year of recruiting will likely make a noticeable difference because he’s not only selling polo, he’s part of one of the most recognizable college athletics programs in the country, thanks to Wildcat basketball.

If St. Francis does not respond to the infusion of new talent, they and Brooklyn rival LIU will have a match in mid-April that may not only be for local bragging rights, it may be one of the few contests that the new Sharks have a shot at winning.

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