2020 Swimming World Women’s Water Polo Previews: the Western Water Polo Association

ucsd-2019-champs-jan20
You won't see this again! UC San Diego won seven-straight WWPA titles—and are now playing in the Big West. Photo Courtesy: WWPA

2020 will be a watershed year for women’s water polo in the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA). A blend of schools from California and East of the Mississippi, in April one WWPA team will qualify for the 2020 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament—as it has for the past two decades. But, for the first time in seven years, UC San Diego will not be the conference’s standard-bearer. After dominating WWPA foes the much of the last ten years, including 45 straight wins and eight of the last nine conference championships, the Tritons moved to the Big West this season.

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

wwpa-logo-apr-17That’s not the only issue for the WWPA, a conference made up exclusively of Division II women’s water polo programs. Another change is that the first-ever national DIII women’s tournament will take place in May, at the same time as NCAAs. The USA Water Polo DIII Women’s Collegiate Water Polo National Championship, and it’s corresponding men’s tournament, may crowd all NCAA varsity teams, in particular those playing in a WWPA now absent its flagship program.

[SW Polo Roundtable With Jen Dubow, John Abdou & Dan Sharadin On Biggest Issues Facing The Sport]

In a reflection of the conference’s current standing, none of the eight remaining WWPA schools were ranked in the latest Collegiate Water Polo Association Top 25 poll. UC San Diego currently clocks in at eighth—one of the program’s highest rankings ever.

Following is the expected order of finish as determined by a WWPA preseason coaches poll.

Team Capsules:

CSUEB

Last season Cal State East Bay went 15-15 and finished third in the 2019 WWPA tournament. The Pioneers come into a new season as the preseason favorite for top honors primarily due to the return of 2019 WWPA Co-Player of the Year Auriel Bill (38 goals, 51 assists, 38 exclusions drawn), two-time All-WWPA First-Team selection Adrien Van Dyke (65 goals, 35 assists), as well as ACWPC Second-Team All-American goalkeeper Daniela Passoni (182 saves; 9.21 goals against average). Head Coach Lisa Cooper has a mix of experienced players, with 12 upper classmen, including junior Maci Taylor, a center defender who chipped in 16 goals, 25 assists in 2019 after a team-high 28 exclusions drawn in 2018. Two freshmen—Janie Hobbs of Foothill High School and Jordan Jarandson from El Toro High School—will look to replace Brittany Smith (26 goals) and Maeve Flynn (22 goals) from among six 2019 graduates. Key to the Pioneers’ season will be the play of Passoni—a South African who represented her country in the 2019 FINA World Women’s Junior Water Polo Championships.

Key Match-Up: Fresno Pacific, April 4, Hayward, CA

fresno-pacificFresno Pacific was runner up to UC San Diego in last season’s WWPA tournament. All-WWPA First Team honoree Sam Witt (59 goals, 34 assists) is one of a trio of seniors that hope to conclude their Sunbird careers with a WWPA title. Last season, Willow Brown drew 21 exclusions, while Gabriella Garcia-Roy chipped in 14 assists. Amy Zaninovich hit for 53 goals and 27 assists in her first year in Fresno, while junior Katie Kisling (43 goals, 40 steals) will be a key contributor, especially as Savannah Mangrum (31 goals, 47 assists, 43 exclusions draw) and Jenna Collins (38 goals, team-high 60 exclusions drawn) graduated last spring. The goalie position may prove decisive for Head Coach Bryan Suhovy; junior Gracie Bishop had 121 saves in 20 appearances, but Madeline Frey—now graduated—started 14 matches in 2019 and had a better goals against average. Junior Camryn Berra played 40 minutes; it may be up freshman Bailee Poole to spell Bishop.

Key Match-Up: Fresno State, February 7, Fresno, CA

salem-logoOne of the inspirational stories of last season was the play of Salem, which revived its women’s water polo program in 2019. The Tigers finished sixth in the conference tournament, with a big assist by Margherita Garibbo. The WWPA Newcomer of the Year led the conference with 101 total points on 69 goals and 38 assists. Head Coach Justin Kassab has Philippa Piper (conference-high 317 saves) returning in goal, while Annefleur ten Bloemendal (71 goals, 33 steals) will join Garibbo on an efficient roster of ten. Kassab has brought in two freshmen: Courtney O’Shaughnessy from South Africa and Elizabeth Elliot of Illinois. Chloe Woodbine led the Tigers with 36 exclusions drawn and also led the team with 18 field blocks.

[On The Record with Justin Kassab, Head Coach For Salem Women’s Water Polo]

Key Match-Up: Gannon University, February 8, Washington, PA

gannonLast season Gannon imported a new coach from SoCal; this year he’s paying dividends. In 2019 Shane Unger led the Lady Knights to a 4-0 record in WWPA regular season play and fourth in the conference tournament. He returns Campbell Ruh (40 goals, 30 assists, 26 steals), Kelly Fehr (team-high 67 goals, 31 exclusions drawn) and Sydney Fountain (33 goals, 29 assists) as well as goalie Isabelle Viera (194 saves). But the measure of a new coach’s impact is their recruits; Unger has brought in six freshmen; noteworthy are Sydney Klakegg, a goalie from Choate who played for Santa Barbara 805 the last seven years; Katie Baker from San Jose, CA; Jezebel Garcia, who will be a two-sport player, competing for Gannon’s wrestling team; and Mary Trese Squeglia of Erie, PA, who transferred from La Salle.

Key Match-Up: Salem, April 11, Erie, PA

sonomoIf Sonoma State—7-17 in 2019 and seventh in the WWPA tournament—moves up to fifth place it will be the Seawolves best result since a third-place finish in 2018. Jordan Williams (48 goals, 68 exclusions drawn) returns, as does Annika Erikson (44 goals, 14 steals), and goalie Brooke Sullivan (243 saves). If Head Coach Chelsea Hennan wants her squad to go deep into the 2020 postseason, they will need to improve on offense. With 181 goals scored, the Seawolves were at the bottom of offensive numbers in the WWPA. Hennan has turned to the junior college ranks, bringing in Mikayla Theide (61 goals, 20 assists – 2018) from La Positas Junior College and Morgan Jones (32 goals, 33 assists – 2018) from Sierra College. In the Sonoma State cage Allison Dugdale, also from Sierra College, will look to push Sullivan. Four Seawolf freshman are headlined by Courtney Smith of Lincoln High School, and Jenna Olson of El Segundo High School.

Key Match-Up: Cal State East Bay, February 22, Rohnert Park, CA

csumbThe backbone of the Cal State Monterey Bay attack will be underclassmen. Sophomores Olivia Centis (30 goals, 23 assists, 37 steals) and Kaitlin Rooney (34 goals, 39 assists, 42 steals) will be the . Shelby Stephens (197 saves) graduated last spring; the only goalies on Head Coach Emily Schmit’s roster are freshmen—Zoe Grammer of El Dorado High School and Hope Lovich of Caliremont High School. Along with Cecile Judy of Alameda High School and Grace Frias of Cabrillo College High School, they are half of the newcomers on Schmit’s roster. These first year players will be tasked with replacing the output of Marisa Lovos (60 goals, 47 assists) and Morgan Tucker (71 goals, 32 exclusions drawn), both of whom graduated. CSUMB’s only two seniors—Angela Steele (9 goals) and Sarah Smith (14 goals, 16 assists)—will look to step up for the Otters.

Key Match-Up: Whittier, March 7, Claremont, CA

mckendreeSophomore Emily Westlove (76 goals and 30 assists)—an ACWPC Division-II All-American Honorable Mention—will need  to lead McKendree this season if they want to break into the upper half of the WWPA. Head Coach Colleen Lischwe also has senior Brianna Mullalley (65 goals, 23 assists) returning as well as goalie Isabella Strimling (120 saves)—the only goalie on Lischwe’s roster. Six freshmen dot Lischwe’s roster, including Alivia Garcia, who played for Kennedy High School in Buena Park, CA and Lindy Justice, a Canadian junior national team prospect with three summers of JOs experience for Santa Barbara 805 Water Polo Club.

Key Match-Up: Monmouth College, April 5, Lebanon, IL

mercyhurstWith an 8-18 record in 2019—and 0-3 against conference foes—there’s only one way to go for a Mercyhurst program picked last in the coaches’ preseason poll: up. Returning for the Lakers’ Head Coach Curtis Robinette are four of their top five scorers led by Maddie Nye (77 goals, 92 points), Rachel Byrnes (22 goals, 40 saves), Michaela Hershey (18 goals and 15 assists) and Rachel Morris (team-high 22 assists). Newcomers include goalie Madison Hoefakker of Jenison High School in Michigan, Hanna Good from Lyons Township High School in Illinois and Hanna Enquist from Mother McAuley High School in Chicago.

Key Match-Up: Washington & Jefferson, April 4, Erie, PA

Outlook:

The loss of UC San Diego drastically changes the composition of the WWPA. With no strong representative, the conference’s remaining schools risk being marginalized in the NCAA tournament balance of power. This is the challenge posed by the new DIII tournament. Separating out the smaller, less competitive polo programs and grouping them in their own championship improves the quality of play at NCAAs. But, it puts the WWPA—with programs constrained by DII scholarship rules—at a disadvantage to the six other conferences that will send teams to the national championship.

Without it’s seven-time champs, the conference is wide open. Cal State East Bay has strength at key positions—set, center defense and goal—which, along with Auriel Bill, is why the Pioneers are favorites. But there’s two other programs that could challenge CSEB: Fresno Pacific, a finalist last year has its own star in Sam Witt, and Salem, a sentimental choice that finished a surprising sixth last year and will be better in 2020. For the rest of the conference, the challenge will be to move into the upper half of the conference ranks; Gannon, led by Unger, a former coach from the legendary SoCal club in Los Angeles, has brought in a strong freshmen class in his second year in Erie. The Lady Golden Knights may be a dark horse for conference honors; if that were to happen, it would upset the WWPA’s hierarchy. In two decades of women’s polo competition, no school outside of California has won the conference’s automatic NCAA bid.

It would be unprecedented if any of the non-California schools—Gannon, McKendree, Mercyhurst and Salem—were to win the 2020 conference tournament. But, given the parity created by the Tritons’ departure, it’s noteworthy that an upset in the WWPA tournament, which will take place April 24-26 at Fresno Pacific’s Sunnyside Aquatics Center, might not only provide a historic shift in top conference honors, no matter who the WWPA’s representative it they are almost certain to be the weakest participant in the 2020 NCAA Women’s Tournament.