Hope Bubbles Up from Revived Canadian Women’s Water Polo Squad

Lima, Sunday August 04, 2019 - Canada ’s players compete during the Women’s Water Polo Group Phase match against Cuba at Villa Maria del Triunfo at Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Cristiane Mattos / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **
Canada goalie Jessica Gaudreault is key to her team's success. Photo Courtesy: Cristiane Mattos

PRINCETON, NJ. Thursday night’s 2019 Holiday Cup match between the Canadian women’s water polo team and the U.S. national squad was not indicative of the either team’s ability. The final score — 17-6 for the Americans — suggests a yawning gap between the programs, particularly as three U.S. starters, Rachel Fattal, Ashleigh Johnson and Maggie Steffens, were in the stands watching their teammate play.

canada-logoThe Canadians were also missing a key starter, goalie Jessica Gaudreault, making this an uneven contest for both sides. Which it was; by intermission the Americans broke out to an 11-1 lead on their northern neighbors before letting in a flurry of late Canadian goals.

Leading the scoring for Team USA were Makenzie Fischer, Paige Hauschild and Maddie Musselman, who contributed three goals each. Joelle Bekhazi had a hat trick to lead Team Canada.

In other action, Italy held off the Netherlands 7-4 in an extremely physical match; with seven points (2-2) the Dutch have the inside track to face the Americans (3-0; 8 points) in the Holiday Cup Final Saturday in Princeton’s De Nunzio Pool. But, if Italy (2-1; five points) upsets the Americans tonight there will be a rematch between the two teams in tomorrow’s final.

Friday’s matches: Canada vs. Russia and Italy vs. USA; both can be streamed via Facebook here.

Searching for consistency

The story of the Canada vs. USA contest was not the outcome but incremental progress being made by the Canadians under Head Coach David Paradelo. Now in his second year leading the program following the departure of Theocharis Pavlides in April 2018, the boyish Paradelo has already led his club further than any of his recent predecessors. Last August at the 2019 Pan American Games, Canada qualified for the Olympics for the first time since 2004. They got there by backing in — the U.S. got an Olympic berth by virtue of a 2019 FINA World League Super title win, so the Canadians took the spot reserved for the Pan Am games winner.

[Want to See the World’s Greatest Water Polo Players? They’re in New Jersey This Week]

No matter how they qualified, Parandelo and his roster — a mixture of youth and experience — are embracing their Olympic moment.

“We’ve been progressing in a lot of the parts of the game,” he said in the De Nunzio Pool stands after the match. “We still have a lot of room to improve. Right now, it’s about doing this consistently.”

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Canada’s Joelle Bekhazi. Photo Courtesy: Sherie Key/USAWP

Consistency was a recurring theme for Paradelo, who has been coaching for Water Polo Canada since 2010. His squad consists of veteran players such as Krystina Alogbo and Bekhazi — who have been staples of the national team for a decade — as well as Kyra Christmas and Axelle Crevier, both of whom are 22. The meshing of young and old is never easy, and the Canadian coach said that this is the biggest challenge for his club in the run up to Tokyo.

“Expectations were to come here and work on what we have since the beginning of the year. Since last April it’s been piece-by-piece,” Paradelo said. “Right now, we’re not doing it consistently, so it’s to make sure those things are consistent game-in-game out.”

But, there are signs of measurable progress by the team, suggesting that Canadian hopes to rise above the program’s current FINA ranking of eight are not unfounded.

A tournament last weekend in Montreal saw China, the Netherlands and Russia join the U.S. and Canada in two days of round-robin play. The results were favorable for the host squad: a 2-2 record, including a huge win 11-10 win over a strong Dutch team, their first such win over the Netherlands in eight years. Also noteworthy; Canada was within four goals of it’s more successful neighbor in a 10-6 loss that saw the home team tied at the half.

Respect earned in the pool

This week in Princeton has brought additional respect to a Canadian program that for more than a decade has been outside of the Olympic picture. A loss to Holland on Monday was followed Wednesday by another signature win, this time a by 12-9 over Italy, Canada’s first win over the Italians in almost a decade.

[Anywhere, Anytime: The U.S. Women Beat Russia In Opener of USA Water Polo Holiday Cup]

A win tonight against a Russian squad that has thus far gone winless (0-3) in Holiday Cup play will put the Canadians (1-2; 3 points) in Saturday’s third-place match. Which is important; competition against some of the world’s top squads is beneficial, so more games is ideal. As Paradelo pointed out, having two weeks of back-to-back matches  is  similar to the Olympics schedule — and provides the benefit of game experience for all the practice time his players will put in between now and the Tokyo Games next July.

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Canada’s David Paradelo takes a victory plunge with Canadian Juniors in July 2018. Photo Courtesy: Don Utas

A year-long practice schedule means that Christmas and Emma Wright, a senior at Cal, will miss the 2020 NCAA season. But, it will be worth it as their coach builds the kind of program which American Head Coach Adam Krikorian has, one where talented women work with their national team coaches as well as compete in NCAA varsity polo competition that at the highest levels rivals the best women’s professional play in the world.

To achieve this, the goal is to practice and compete whenever and wherever possible.

“We’ve been training since the end of September,” Paradelo said. “It’s about testing where we are now and knowing what we have to adapt to get there to the Olympics.”

Then, adding about the focus on high-level competition the past two weekend, he added: “It’s the best way for us to see where we are at this point in time.”

Which, by recent results, appears to be good.