2020 Swimming World Women’s Water Polo Previews: Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

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The Regals rode a wave of emotion to a title in 2019; this year could never be the same—but may result in another title. Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran Athletics

Even without the lauch last year of a national DIII championship for men and women, the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference would still be the nation’s most intriguing conference for water polo. A federation of academically excellent colleges that dot the California landscape, the SCIAC’s size—nine members—and collective polo ability make for a high-quality experience for scholar athletes.

SCIACThe inclusion this season of a women’s national championship will make SCIAC even more competitive—and unpredictable—than in years past. That was the situation for the men in 2019, when preseason favorite Pomona-Pitzer, winner of the past two titles, did not advance to their conference final. The result was the Sage Hens did not participate in the first-ever DIII Collegiate Men’s Water Polo National Championship, which saw SCIAC members CMS and Whittier battle for a national title last December, with the host Poets coming out on top. Much the same is possible for the women’s side in 2020, a number of teams have legitimate hopes to finish in the top four—and once they pass that hurdle, anyone can win.

Following are the rankings from the 2020 SCIAC coaches’ preseason poll; finalists for the conference title will both qualify for the III Collegiate Women’s Final Four, with the winner hosting the women’s DIII championship May 8-9, 2020.

Team Capsules:

cal-luther-crestLast season the father and daughter combo of Crag and Lexi Rond powered Cal Lutheran to a SCIAC title. Lexi, with 57 goals and 108 exclusions drawn, was the 2019 SCIAC Newcomer of the Year, while Craig and his staff captured top conference coaching honors. To repeat in 2020, the Regals will need to replace some of Rond’s supporting cast. Nikki Roed (39 goals, 43 steals) and Mardell Ramirez (32 goals, 33 assists) and Bailey Meyer (conference high 314 saves, 28 games started in 2019) all graduated last spring. Returning include Victoria Rose Meek (29 goals, 43 exclusions drawn) and Jessica Diaz (33 goals). Taking Meyer’s place between the pipes will likely be sophomore Kaitlin Moreno; if she falters, Rond can call on freshman Taryn Sato from Henry Perrine Bladtin High School in Wailuku, Hawai’i. There’s excitement mingled with sadness in Thousand Oaks for the team that last year went 23-9—12-2 in conference—and won a SCIAC title for the first time since 2009. Tributes to Meek’s brother Justin, a former Kingsman killed in the tragic shooting at the Bordeline Bar, are never far from view.

Key Match Up: Pomona-Pitzer, March 14, Thousand Oaks, CA

[On The Record with Craig Rond, Head Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach for Cal Lutheran]

pomonaThe most surprising development from last year’s SCIAC women’s season is not that Pomona-Pitzer lost 10-9 in the final to Cal Lutheran; it’s that the Sage Hens lost to any conference opponent. Head Coach Alex Rodriguez’s team had won 38-straight conference matches since a March 2017 loss to Whittier. The Sage Hens go into a new season without key members from last year’s regular season champs and questions about what it will take to repeat in 2020. Graduates include: Natalie Hill (32 goals, 35 assists) and goalie Morgan Stockham (204 saves, 7.98 goals against average); both were selected All-SCIAC First Team. Also missing in 2020 is Rodriguez himself; he’ll be with the U.S. men’s national team preparing for the 2020 Olympics, so Alex La will lead the Sage Hens—as he did in 2016. And all is not lost in Pomona; the Sage Hens return Nadia Paquin (31 goals, 20 assist) and Lucie Abele (27 goals, 12 assists); also on a young roster—no seniors, and half the dozen players are freshmen—are newcomers Aurora Sheridan, a goalie from Claremont High School in Claremont and Madison Lewis from Castilleja High School in Palo Alto, California.

Key Match Up: Harvard, March 17, Claremont, CA

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After advancing to the postseason last year for the second time since Head Coach David Kasa took over in 2017, Whittier failed to make the conference both times. With a veteran club anchored by top scorers Sawyer Bellville (40 goals, 27 assists) and Teresa Marchetti (58 goals, 17 assists)—both of whom were All-SCIAC First Team—Kasa hopes that will change—especially given the DIII championship’s automatic berth as a finalist . Ally Burke, a freshman from Las Vegaz, Nevada, will shore up the Poet defense while another freshman, Grace Arnsparger, of Milikan High School in Long Beach California, will look to supply offense. Kasa has plenty of returning players, with ten upperclassmen on a roster of 15. The biggest question is in goal, where Tahlia Pou (66 saves in 2019) and Lauren Tapia (55) were not stellar. Both return for 2020 but this may be Kasa’s biggest concern this season.

Key Match Up: Brown, March 23, Whittier, CA

[On The Record With Whittier’s David Kasa, Head Coach of the DIII Men’s Polo National Champs]

CMSIn his 13 years leading the Athenas, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Head Coach Greg Lonzo has yet to win a SCIAC championship. Amelia Ayala (32 goals, 13 assists, 30 steals) returned, as does Aracelia Aldrete (25 goals, 22 exclusions drawn)—both were All-SCIAC Second Team, Alex Szymczak (28 goals, 13 exclusions, 26 exclusions drawn) and goalie Jessica Salaz (134 saves) also return for a CMS squad that last year finished at 9-17 overall and 7-7 in the conference regular season, just missing out on the SCIAC postseason. The problem in 2019 was offense; CMS scored only 174 goals while giving up 214. To change this dynamic, Lonzo has brought in four freshmen, including Christina Kulick of Los Gatos High School in California, and Jessie Beyer from Park City High School in Utah.

Key Match Up: La Verne, March 18, Claremont, CA

[On The Record with Greg Lonzo, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach]

laverneLa Verne has the reigning SCIAC Player of the Year in Jassmine Kezman (82 goals, 13 assists, 37 exclusions drawn) and came oh so close to a signature win in last year’s SCIAC playoffs, dropping a one-goal decision to Pomona-Pitzer, the two-time reigning champions. This season, if Head Coach Pat Beemer’s squad can reverse that post-season decision, they will qualify for the DIII championship. Kezman is now a junior; in her first two years at La Verne she’s been a driving force, with 151 goals, exactly a third of the Leopards’ total for those years.  Beemer’s star player will need help this year; Guarina Garcia (54 goals, 40 steals) and Victoria Mezack (13 goals, 35 assists) two of the Leopards’ leading scorers from 2019, graduated, including. Shelby Garcia (170 saves) returns in goal, as does Ilene Guerrero (42 goals, 10 assists) and Kelly Riedel (16 goals). There’s a slew of newcomers on the Leopards’ roster; six freshmen, headlined by Nancy Trinh of Temple City High School in Temple City, California and Sumi Rudisky of South Pasadena High School in Los Angeles.

Key Match Up: Cal Lutheran, April 18, Thousand Oaks

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Redlands was tied with CMS in last year’s standings, two games out of a post-season berth—the seventh straight year the Bulldogs missed there conference tournament. To reverse this trend. and Head Coach Chris Gielen, now in his sixth year in Redlands, has brought in six freshmen. Two will compete to be tabbed to replace the now-graduated starter Kelly Grosswendt (268 saves, All-SCIAC Second Team); Erin Ross comes from Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach while Tori Zielinski is a graduate of Homestead High School in Sunnyvale, California. The Bulldogs will need their newcomers to step up; graduates Katelyn Jenkins (50 goals; All-SCIAC First Team) and Kolby Kahahawai (45 goals) will be hard to replace.

Key Match Up: Macalester, March 21, Redlands, CA

chapmanTwo-time All-SCIAC and All-American selection Audrey Hattori (58 goals, 32 assists, 68 steals) returns to Chapman for her junior year. Alissa Caltagirone (12 goals, 6 assists), Kylie Beloian (15 goals, 25 exclusions drawn) and Charlene Ma (11 goals, 10 assists) also return for 2020. Freshmen Sophie Salstrom from Oaks Christian School in Newbury Park, California and Julia Bridges from La Mirada High School in La Mirada, California will look to replace the now-graduated Alyssa Welfringer (150 saves) between the Panther pipes. Also moving on from the 2019 that finished 10-16 and 4-10 in SCIAC play: Mia Chanove (19 goals, 38 assists) and Argelia Diaz (40 goals, 36 exclusions drawn). With eight freshmen Head Coach Eric Ploessel will look to upperclassmen—including seniors Caltagirone and Roisin Cunningham Smythe (11 points, 15 steals)—to provide veteran leadership.

Key Match Up: Connecticut College, March 9, Orange, CA

occidentalNine of the 12 players on Occidental’s roster are underclassmen. This for a team that in 2019 went 1-13 in conference play (7-17 overall) and is losing Claudia Oppermann, named 2019 ACWPC All-American Honorable Mention. Newcomers are Jenny Desch from Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Illinois, Kayla Lin from Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California and Olivia Montgomery from South Eugene High School in Eugene, Oregon. Also new for the Tigers and head coach Jack Stabenfeldt is the Occidental pool. After years of planning and what seemed an interminable wait, the De Mandel Aquatics Center is ready for action this season. Among returning players, key for Stabenfeldt will be sophomore Abigail Lavold— also a 2019 ACWPC All-American Honorable Mention selection—seniors Lori Berberian and Monica Chernoff as well as goalie Mika O’Shea (95 saves in 2019). Over the past five years, Occidental’s only wins in conference play have come against Caltech.

Key Match Up: Chapman, March 18, Los Angeles, CA

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A game changer at Occidental: De Mandel Aquatics Center. Photo Courtesy: Oxy Athletics

caltechLast year Brittany Percin (26 goals; 129 career scores) and Katie Johnston (49 goals, 20 assists; 128 total) finished their Cal Tech careers as number one and two all-time in Beaver scoring. This twin accomplishment leaves Head Coach Jon Bonafede in the unenviable position of replacing half of the scoring for a team that went 2-18 last season, including 0-14 in conference play. Besides Sophie Devoe (14 goals, 14 assists), Bonafede will rely on a core of seniors— Michelle Zhao (6 goals), Mackenzie Wooten (5 goals, 7 assists), Samantha D’Costa (4 goals, 8 assists) and Gabriella Chan (2 goals)—as well was freshmen Amanda Piyapanee of Carroll High School in Southlake, Texas and Sarah Zou of Texas Academy of Math and Science in Sugar Land, Texas. Also returning: goalie Zoe Rock (74 saves).

Key Match Up: Occidental, April 22, Pasadena, CA

Outlook:

To pick a favorite for the SCIAC this season is difficult. The Regals are defending champions, and Lexi Rond is clearly a difference maker. But Whittier has two such players in Bellville and Marchetti, while La Verne returns Kezman, the conference’s best player the past two years. And, perhaps “favorite” needs to be clarified; it’s the top two teams that move on to the DIII national championship, and for that, five teams—Cal Lutheran, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, La Verne, Pomona-Pitzer and Whittier—can claim legitimate hopes. But, all have weaknesses as well.

The difference in these teams are in goal and their experience. The Sage Hens, who owned the SCIAC up until the Regals snatched the crown from them in last year’s final, have a ton of youth and many holes to fill. They also have years of success to build upon, especially when recruiting top polo athletes. CMS is deep but also young, with 11 sophomores on a roster of 21; they do return goalie Salaz. Whittier has two of the conference’s top players but their goal-tending tandem leaves something to be desired.

With another year of the Rond family—as well as strong contributions from goalie Moreno and Diaz, Garcia and Meek, the Regals should be in the final again. The team they will likely oppose are the Leopards of La Verne, who return a core of players from the squad that just missed in 2019—and a desire to prove they belong in the national championship picture.

As for the bottom half of the conference, Chapman and Redlands will look to break into the top four—and they will go as far as their freshmen goalies take them. Occidental’s greatest addition is a new pool; if marketed properly, the possibilities for Tiger men’s and women’s polo are great. The proximity to the fertile polo region of SoCal and the attractiveness of an academically prestigious college close to the heart of Los Angeles may prove enticing to polo prospects from all over the country. First, Stabenfeldt has to prove he can beat more than Caltech. For the Beavers, the goal is the same as when they joined the SCIAC in 2009; beat a conference opponent.

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