CWPA’s Preseason Women’s Water Polo Poll is Out – And Swimming World Has Lots to Say About It

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UCLA's Val Ayala is a rising star who will shine due to the absence of national team players in an Olympic year. Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

The Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Top 25 Women’s Varsity Poll is out, the preseason ranking of the nation’s top women’s water polo programs that signals a new season.

Swimming World appreciates that a another women’s campaign has begun. In fact, play opened a week ago. Cal faced San Jose State last Saturday; the Golden Bears recorded a 12-6 win over the Spartans and their new head coach, Beth Harberts.

To launch into a new season, we break down each team in the Top 25. Swimming World’s will also post its annual conference previews over the course of the upcoming week.

An important consideration: in an Olympic year—which 2020 is—there’s many variables at play. The most important: many American and foreign-born athletes have left their college teams to train with national teams in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. This change mostly impact the top college programs, but its a ripple effect felt throughout the country.

NOTE: Records in parenthesis are from 2019.

In 2019 Stanford again proved that defense wins championships. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

#1 University of Southern California (28-2; 5-1 MPSF; National Champion runner-up). The Trojans are not only the top team in the CWPA’s preseason poll, they’re the favorites in the MPSF coaches poll. After a season leading the USC men, Marko Pintaric begins his first season as head women’s coach. Last season he fell just short of his predecessor’s standard. Before he was fired, Jovan Vavic took his men to 14 straight finals, winning eight of them. Pintaric’s men lost a memorable overtime match to Stanford in the NCAA semis. For 2020 USC will be missing at least four front-line women: Alejandra Aznar (training with the Spanish national team) Tilly Kearns (training with the Australian national team); Maud Megens (with the Dutch national team) and Paige Hauschild (on the U.S. national team roster). Any one of these players would be difference-makers for a top-five program; losing all four is transformative. Next Saturday against host Cal Baptist will be the first match for the new-look Trojans and their national title aspirations.

#2 (T) Stanford University (23-2; 6-0 MPSF; National Champions). If the Trojans are missing national team players this season, what of the Cardinal, whose current and former players make up more than half of the U.S. national team roster? Lost to Stanford Head Coach John Tanner this season are the following players: Makenzie Fischer (2019 Cutino Award winner); her sister Aria; and Ryann Neushul (who scored the winning goal in 2019 NCAA final). While this may appear to be less losses than their chief MPSF antagonist, it’s significant that in the last Olympic year (2016) Stanford dropped the NCAA title game to the Trojans. This year may be more of the same; the first glimpse of what will be is Saturday, when Stanford opens its season on the road against San Jose State.

#2 (T) UCLA (24-7; 4-2 MPSF; qualified for NCAAs). Maddie Musselman (U.S. national team) and Bronte Halligan (Australian national team) are out this season, leaving Bruin Head Coach Adam Wright short-handed in year three of his program’s rebuild. It’s hardly a massive overhaul; UCLA water polo has won at least 23 games every season for almost two decades, including six national championships. Though none since Adam Krikorian left for the U.S. women’s team a decade ago. Since he left, the Bruins have reached three NCAA finals; the last one in 2017, Brandon Brooks final year as head coach. It’s not outlandish to expect that Wright will find a way to seize an opportunity to win it all in an Olympic year, especially with star sophomores Val Ayala and Ava Johnson returning. The Bruin season starts Friday with a match against California State University-Northridge (CSUN).

[Young Bruin Val Ayala Powering A UCLA Women’s Water Polo Revival]

#4 California (17-9; 3-3 MPSF; qualified for NCAAs). Last season the Golden Bears had a superb opportunity to advance to their first national championship final since 2011, but a lead against USC in the NCAA semifinals slipped away. Head Coach Coralie Simmons is sure to reflect on that opportunity, but in this new season it’s imperative to account for the loss of Emma Wright to the Canadian national team and Kitty Lynn Joustra to the Dutch squad. It’s hard to predict how these player losses will play out, but Simmon’s squad has already got off on the right foot with the win against San Jose State. There’s more Cal action starting Saturday with matches against UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara.

January 26, 2019; Spieker Aquatics Center, Berkeley, CA, USA; Womens Water Polo:Cal Cup : California Golden Bears vs Fresno State Bulldogs; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Cal’s Coralie Simmons. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

#5 UC Irvine (19-9; Big West 4-1). 2019 ended on a sour note, as the Anteaters dropped the Big West final to Hawai’i by a 7-6 score. For this season, UCI has no losses to national team play but will have to contend with the graduation of Mary Brooks, one of the best player in Anteater polo history. That, and Head Coach Dan Klatt’s duties as the top assistant to Krikorian and the U.S. women’s team. By comparison, in 2016 UCI missed NCAAs, finishing third in the Big West tournament. Play starts Saturday for Klatt’s squad; they travel to Santa Barbara for matches against California and Michigan.

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

#6 Hawai’i (18-6; 4-1 Big West; qualified for NCAAs); The Rainbow Wahine had a banner season in 2019, advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015 but beating Big West rival UC Irvine. To expect big things from Head Coach Maureen Cole’s squad this season may be a bit much; they will have to replace Irene Gonzalez (two-time Big West Player of the Year) Femke Aan—lost to graduation—and Elyse Lemay-Lavoie, who’s with the Canadian national team. Hawai’i’s season starts Saturday at home with a match against Loyola Marymount.

#7 Michigan (23-9; 6-0 CWPA; qualified for NCAAs); As always, Michigan Head Coach Marcelo Leonardi will start fast; his Wolverines are already out in California for the UCSB Winter Invitational where they will open their season Saturday against CSUN and UC Irvine. It will be shocking if Michigan doesn’t win the CWPA for a fifth straight year; they are as automatic an NCAA participant as any women’s polo team in the country. The real test is how Leonardi’s team does against the country’s best. U ntil CWPA play begins in late March every weekend the Wolverines will either be on the West Coast or focused on Californian competition. Could an upset against one of the top five happen this season for Big Blue? Without Maddy Steere—training this season with the Australian national team—it’s less likely. But not impossible.

#8 Arizona State (14-12; 1-5 MPSF). Last season must have been a long one for Sun Devils’ Head Coach Todd Clapper. As dedicated and strategic a coach as there is in the women’s game, Clapper had to watch as ASU fell to 10th in the polls, after starting the season fifth. This year, no surprises; the Sun Devils open in a week against an Ottawa team playing in its very first collegiate season. Missing this season from the ASU roster is Bente Rogge, who’s with the Dutch national team.

#9 Pacific (18-9; 7-0 GCC; qualified for NCAAs). Given the losses that the Tigers suffered to national team rosters—including Kyra Christmas, GCC Player of the Year in 2018, 2018 and starting goalie Clara Vulpisi, both of whom are with the Canadian nation team—it will be challenging for the Tigers to keep up their conference winning streak, which is at 21-straight. Making it to NCAAs again in 2020 that may be all that can reasonably be expected from Head Coach James Graham’s squad.

#10 UC-Davis (18-13; 3-2 Big West). Play starts on Sunday for the Aggies against Santa Clara and Fresno Pacific; they are likely fighting UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State for the number three spot in the Big West, but it’s still early yet.

#11 UC Santa Barbara (22-8; 3-2 Big West). yet another team looking to move up to the top of the Big West heap, the Gauchos had a break-out season in 2019 and this season will seek to supplant rivals UC Davis, Long Beach State and perhaps Hawai’i and UC Irvine. Their season starts with a bang Friday with a match against #3 UCLA in at home in the UCSB Winter Invite.

#12 Loyola Marymount (21-10; 5-2 GCC). The Lions may end up being the biggest beneficiary of this Olympic year. Head Coach Kyle Witt has lost key players to graduation but was not raided by any national team programs. Because they’re the number two choice in the GCC pre-season coaches poll—and due to the losses top pick Pacific will endure—it’s likely that LMU will not only end Pacific’s three-year winning streak in conference play but may topple the Tigers string of GCC titles.

#13 UC-San Diego (22-14; 4-0 WWPA; qualified for NCAAs). If you look for the Tritons in the Western Water Polo Association standings this season, you’ll miss them; as a result of their athletic department’s upgrade to full DI status, the UCSD women moved to the Big West conference for the 2020 season. This will make the path to NCAAs for Head Coach Brad Kreutzkamp’s squad that much more difficult; the Tritons had represented the WWPA in the national championship tournament for the past seven years. An NCAA title is probably not in the UCSD cards for 2020.

#14 Fresno State (14-15; 4-3 GCC). Under Head Coach Natalie Benson, the Bulldogs have made tremendous strides in just three years of existence. From a program-opening seven wins in 2018 to 14 victories in 2019, there’s only one way for Fresno State to go: up! Their season opens on Saturday against Marist, which is the program Benson oversaw before going home for the Bulldogs position.

#15 (T) Princeton (21-9; 5-1 CWPA). By most measures, Derek Ellingson’s first season as head coach for the Tigers was a success. A 20-win season. Signature victories over Wagner, Marist and Cal Baptist. Sweeping Ivy League rivals in conference play. But, two close losses to Michigan—a one-goal defeat in the regular season and then a three-goal loss in the CWPA final—spoiled the sason. Is this the year for Princeton to get back to NCAAs, something that hasn’t happened since Ashleigh Johnson was a sophomore in 2015? Play opens for the Tigers on February 1 at Arizona State.

March 24, 2016; Blodgett Pool

Harvard’s Ted Minnis. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

#15 (T) Long Beach State (16-14; 1-4 Big West). A fifth-place finish in 2020—which is how their 2019 season ended—would not be a good outcome for the 49ers; Head Coach Gavin Arroyo has super sophomore Orsi Hertzka returning, so that’s a sign of good things to come for LBS. Matches start January 25 with the Beach Invite and a contest against DIII school La Verne.

#17 Harvard (21-8; 3-3 CWPA). Since Ted Minnis arrived in Cambridge a decade ago, the Crimson have been (mostly) on an upward curve, with a 20-win season now the expectation. Unlike their brethren who share Blodgett Pool, the Harvard women have yet to advance to NCAAs; this will likley remain a problem until Michigan moves to a new conference (not anytime soon). The Crimson will open their season on February 1 at the Bruno Classic.

[Twenty-seven and 0? Wow! But Harvard Men’s Water Polo Has More to Prove]

#18 San Jose State (10-15; 2-4). What’s odd is that the Spartan men are in the GCC but their women play in the MPSF. This puts San Jose State on the wrong side of some blowout scores. The finished sixth behind Arizona State in the MPSF tournament; the season’s highlight was a 9-7 win over the Sun Devils, the Spartans first over ASU in five years (2015). The season has already started for new SJSU Head Coach Harberts; there’s more action this Saturday as the Spartans host Sonoma State and #2 Stanford.

#19 San Diego State (16-16; 5-2 GCC). the Aztecs lost their last two matches of the season to finish fifth in the GCC; like Loyola Marymount and other GCC schools, Pacific is vulnerable for the upset. SDSU opens next Saturday against host Long Beach State.

#20 Bucknell (25-12; 4-2). The Bison will look to improve on 2019; more wins is likely not so realistic, because the 25 they registered last season is one off the program high of 26, set in 2008. What will perhaps matter most is when Bucknell wins; they lost to Princeton in the CWPA semifinals; a win during the semis this year would mean a first-ever CWPA finals appearance for the Bison.

#21 Wagner (30-10; 14-1 MAAC; qualified for NCAAs). Just to refresh, the Seahawks have technically not lost a conference game in five years, spanning 58 matches. Their one loss in that time was on a technicality; as it turns out, there will be MAAC losses this year. Since head coach Chris Radmonovic left abruptly last summer, there have been a number of changes that will impact Wagner’s success. How the players and their new coach, Ciaran Wolohan overcome a new set of challenges will determine how they defend their MAAC title.

[On The Record with Ciaran Wolohan, New Wagner Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach]

#22 CSUN (14-19; 0-5 Big West). The Matadors did not win a conference match last season, but they took Long Beach State to overtime before dropping the fifth-place match. Seems like New Year’s Resolution #1 for Head Coach Matt Warshaw will be getting a conference “W”; first up is the season opener Friday versus Azusa Pacific.

#23 (T) Indiana (6-17; 0-6 MPSF). There’s no way around it; the Hoosiers’ first season in the MPSF was awful, and cost former head coach Ryan Castle his job. Not winning a conference game—and playing almost all their games on the road last season was not good. Now, Taylor Dodson will rise from assistant to head coach and ideally right the Indiana ship. First match under their new leader is next Saturday against UC Santa Barbara.

23 (T) Marist (22-16; 12-2 MAAC). What a difference a year makes! The Red Foxes are not sorry to see Wagner’s coach go; they hadn’t won a match against the Seahawks since a 2015—a streak of fourteen matches. Of all the teams in this list, Marist has the best chance to change its fortunes and get to NCAAs.

#25 Azusa Pacific (19-14; 4-3 GCC); There’s no question that the Cougars are trending in the right direction. A winning conference record, the most victories in program history, a fifth-place finish in their conference; it’s all good. for an encore, Azusa Pacific will look to move up in the GCC, like all the other challengers to Pacific.

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