NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship Tournament Field: Can Anyone Stop the Big Three?

Hawai'i goalie Daisey Logtens has led her team into the NCAA tournament as the nation's #2 team. Photo Courtesy: Hawai'i Athletics

It’s on! Competition for the 2024 NCAA Women’s Championship opens May 9, with all matches to be held at Spieker Aquatics Center at the University of California, Berkeley. On Monday all nine spots for NCAAs were confirmed after months of fierce competition. 

Six berths were decided by last weekend’s conference tournaments, with the winners advancing. Three were finalized Sunday night by the NCAAs’ at-large committee. In almost every year, this is a formality; the top MPSF (Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) teams that didn’t win their tournament getting at-large bids.

Per usual, the Big Four are in

That narrative did not change this season, though 2024 has certainly been unusual. For the first time since 1997, Stanford lost to Cal by five goals (or more)—twice. The Golden Bears beat the Cardinals 10-4 Saturday in the MPSF Championships in Indiana a week after an 11-6 Cal win at Palo Alto in the annual Big Splash. This put Stanford in a tough spot; two late season losses and a match with USC for third place in the MPSF. 

The Trojans were also a 10-4 loser, to undefeated UCLA in the other MPSF semifinal. It’s been a difficult first full season for coach Casey Moon, with more losses (8) this year than in the last two combined (7). A one-goal loss in the MPSF third-place game put USC in a (somewhat) precarious predicament; if the NCAA selection committee decided to go in a different direction, the Trojans would miss the national championship tournament for the first time in 20 seasons.

Luckily for USC (18-8; 4-2 MPSF), the selection folks did not deviate: Cal was given the No. 3 seed, Stanford (18-6; 4-2 MPSF) is No. 4 and USC is in—and will face The Cardinal in the NCAA quarterfinals on May 10.

In the MPSF final, UCLA (23-0; MPSF 6-0) continued its season-long winning streak, downing Cal 13-10. It’s the second time this season the Bruins have beaten their Pac12 rival and gave coach Adam Wright’s team an automatic NCAA berth for the first time since 2017. The win also guaranteed Wright’s team the top seeding in this year’s tournament. As in the previous match-up on April 13 UCLA freshman goalie Lauren Steele outplayed Cal All-American netminder Isabel Williams.

[Coach Adam Wright Weighs in on Guiding UCLA’s Powerful Water Polo Programs]

Hawai’i is NCAA’s No. 2 seed

In The Big West tournament, the only drama was: could anyone stop Hawai’i? The Rainbow Wahine (22-3; 7-0 Big West) beat UC-San Diego 17-10 in a semifinal match, ensuring one half of a long-running rivalry—five previous seasons—would get to the Big West Championship final. They caught a huge break when Long Beach State knocked off UC-Irvine, Hawai’i’s usual finals opponent, in Saturday’s other semifinal. The Beach hadn’t made a Big West final in seven seasons nor ever qualified for NCAAs. They’re still waiting; a 9-5 win sent the Wahine into the postseason as the #2 seed— and favored to advance to their first-ever national championship final.

A loss after 20-straight win kills LMU postseason hopes

One team which is decidedly blue this week is Loyola Marymount. The Lions had reeled off 20 straight wins, and—after UCLA’s undefeated season—at 27-3 have the best record in NCAA polo. But after advancing to the Golden Coast Conference final, they met GCC preseason favorite Fresno State (21-7; 6-1 GCC), The result was an epic battle in which the Bulldogs, after building an early seven goal lead, held on for a 12-11 OT win, giving FSU their fourth consecutive title as well as four-straight NCAA berths.

Sinking Sharks

The big upset in 2023 conference tournament play was LIU’s stunning win in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) final. The Sharks 13-12 OT decision snapped a string of Wagner conference match wins at six and marked the first time in eight years that the Seahawks had been beaten by a MAAC foe in the water. This season the shoe was on the other foot; LIU was the victim of the biggest postseason upset (so far).  Mount St. Mary’s won its first-ever postseason match, stunning the Sharks on Beatrice Vieira’s behind-the-back goal with six seconds to beat LIU goalie Martina Giannoni for a 9-8 victory by The Mount.

The worst part of all this; if the Sharks HAD managed to face the Seahawks (in the semifinals) they had a good probability of staging another upset. Wagner (29-4; 12-0 MAAC) DID win the MAAC (and yet another NCAA berth, the program’s tenth) by squeaking past a Marist team that LIU had beaten by eight goals three weeks ago. Wagner draws Biola, the WWPA champs, on May 9th in the opening match of this year’s tournament.

You can’t keep the Biola Eagles down

The Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) may be the most interesting of the six women’s water polo conferences because it’s made up of teams from both East and West—and sometimes an Eastern squad wins and makes it to NCAAs. Last time that happened was 2022, when Salem qualified from the WWPA.

Then the Eagles of Biola (14-15; 5-1 WWPA) showed up. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the name, “BIOLA” stands for “Bible Institute of Los Angeles.” And, when I spoke with Eagles coach Sarah Orozco in February, she verified that her players REALLY do believe in the bible (and Christ) part. Which is impressive, especially now they have qualified for NCAAs a second consecutive season, by virtue of a 12-11 come-from-behind win against Cal State East Bay (CSEB). And Biola’s program has only been in existence for three years. 

Clearly, you’ve got to believe.

Princeton comes up big… again!

I’ll end this closer to me–Cambridge, MA as a matter of fact. That’s the home of Harvard College, which hosted this year’s Collegiate Water Polo Association championship. Despite beating everyone in their conference during the regular season, the CWPA postseason was an eye-opening affair for Princeton. The Tigers (23-6; 10-0 CWPA) did prevail; it would have been surprising if they did not win a second-straight conference title. But it was by the skin of their collective teeth; they fell behind by three goals early in the third period before rallying to take a 10-9 win over second-seeded Michigan. The match was not decided until the final minute when sophomore Ava Houlahan beat Michigan goalie Alex Brown to give Princeton the win. 

[Princeton Rallies for 2024 CWPA Women’s Water Polo Title On Houlahan’s Last-Minute Goal]

It’s always exciting to go to NCAAs; that’s what all the training and matches and effort is for. To fall short, like LBS, or LMU or Michigan or CSEB did, is hard. What’s harder is to succeed once you’ve arrived at NCAAs. In a quarter-century of national championship play, only three teams—Stanford, UCLA and USC—have ever won. This year there’s hope for change; Hawai’i is the first No. 2 seed in the country that’s not from the Pac 12. The Wahine are on target to be the first non-Pac 12 team since Loyola Marymount in 2004 to advance to the NCAA title game.

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