NCAA Women’s Water Polo Preview: Olympic Year May Have Impact on Season Ahead

Casey Moon

NCAA Women’s Water Polo Preview: Olympic Year May Have Impact on Season Ahead

Azusa Pacific’s 16-6 win over Cal State Monterey Bay earlier this month marked the beginning of the 2024 NCAA women’s season. It’s one that will see a lot of the same from 2023. The past two years—and in four of the last five—Stanford and USC have fought for the NCAA title, with the Cardinal capturing three of those matches including last year’s final in an 11-9 decision.

But in an Olympic year, with national team players returning to their home countries to train for Paris 2024—many of whom compete for U.S. collegiate programs—there will be a significant amount of upheaval at the top of women’s water polo, especially early in the season. Case in point: Last weekend Stanford—with Jenna Flynn, Ryann Neushul, Jewel Roemer and Ella Woodhead now training with Team USA—dropped two of its first four matches, a first for the Cardinal women since the opening weekend of the 2000 season. This dumps the Cardinal—#1 in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s 2024 Preseason Poll— to seventh in this week’s poll. It’s the lowest Stanford has ever ranked in a poll that dates back to 2008.

The More Things Change…

Despite Stanford’s rough weekend, it’s almost certain the Cardinal will be semifinalists for this year’s NCAA championship, to be held in May at the University of California at Berkeley’s Spieker Aquatics Complex. Since John Tanner arrived at The Farm in 1998, they’ve been in every NCAA Final Four. In fact, the Cardinal have appeared in 13 finals the past 15 years (2020 didn’t count because of Covid and a UCLA semifinal upset in 2021 snapped the Cardinal’s ten-final streak).

So why would anyone bet against Tanner, he of nine national championships and 624 wins in 26 years in Palo Alto?

Perhaps this is the year the Bruins (seven titles), who haven’t captured a women’s championship since 2009, finally get back to the winner’s circle. They certainly could use a boost. All the Stanford vs. USC talk must get under the skin of UCLA coach Adam Wright. He’s won six titles on the men’s side (two as a player; four as a coach) but none since taking over the women’s program in 2018. UCLA hasn’t been to a final since 2017, when the Bruins lost a heartbreaker (aren’t they all?) to the Cardinal.

There’s Cal, coached by Coralie Simmons. Ironically, one of the greatest polo players in UCLA history leads a Golden Bears side that has never won an NCAA women’s title (one finals appearance, 2011) The women’s history is a direct contrast to the Cal men, winners of the last three NCAA championships and a record 17 titles. Goalie Isabel Williams is the defensive heart of Simmons’ squad and the nation’s best goalie. Maybe this is a Cal year.

USC (six titles) is second only to Stanford in finals appearances the past decade. The Trojans faced the Cardinal in seven title matches, winning three and losing four. Casey Moon—his 17 years as an assistant makes him the most loyal of Trojans—is in his first full season as head coach (he subbed for You Know Who in 2019 and was behind the bench when USC dropped the final to Stanford). Despite the absence of 2023 Cutino finalist Tilly Kearns to Australia and USA wunderkind Emily Ausmus, who skipped her freshman year to try for gold with the American women, is this a Fight On! kind of season?

Other Programs That Will Benefit in an Olympic Year

Maybe, just maybe, the depleted rosters of the big four—all of whom reside in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation—opens up opportunities to lesser-known programs. That includes UC Irvine, coached by former U.S. women’s national team assistant coach Dan Klatt, and University of Hawaii, which last Saturday beat Stanford for the first time after 25 straight losses. The Anteaters rose to fourth in last year’s final poll—the program’s highest finish ever. UCI keeps Aussie Nioka Thomas whose father, Nathan, went to two Olympics with Australia.

Maureen Cole

Courtesy: Hawaii Athletics

Unfortunately, it’s likely that Hawaii—whose classy head coach Maureen Cole is leaving Honolulu after 17 seasons, including a dozen as lead Rainbow Wahine—will vie with UCI for an NCAA berth, courtesy of the Big West. It’s one of six automatic NCAA berths in play for the 2024 tournament; there are also two at-large berths, likely to be claimed by the big four.

Perhaps this season’s biggest beneficiary will be Fresno State, which upset Stanford in the season opener. Led by head coach Natalie Benson, the Bulldogs have won four straight Golden Coast Conference titles and jumped to #5 in this week’s poll.

Princeton, which made its first-ever Final Four in 2023 and tied UCI for #4 in the nation, will continue to be the class of the East. The Tigers’ biggest 2024 obstacle is the loss of Jovana Sekulic—an All-American who dumped in 76 goals last season for coach Derek Ellingson’s squad and is competing for a spot on the American squad chasing Olympic history in July in Paris.

Here is an early assessment of NCAA water polo tournament qualifiers:

Big West – Preseason Pick: UC Irvine; I think Coach Cole will get Hawaii into NCAAs one last time.
GCC – Biola picked to repeat. You gotta love the Eagles-an NCAA berth in 2023 and a postseason win in just their second season.
CWPA – Princeton favored to win a second straight title. That seems just about right.

Natalie Benson

Courtesy: Golden Coast Conference

MAAC – LIU and Wagner voted as co-favorites for 2024 MAAC title. Wagner is likely steaming about the overtime loss in the 2023 MAAC final that snapped a decade-long conference win streak and sent the Sharks to their first-ever NCAA tournament.
MPSF – No preseason coaches’ pick: Stanford and USC usually in the final. Trojans a safe bet for MPSF title. Two other MPSF squads are sure to be in NCAA field of eight (only MPSF teams have ever captured at-large berths).
WWPA – Fresno State favored to win a fourth-straight title. Coach Benson’s Bulldogs may muscle their way into first Final Four.

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