As NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tourney Nears, There’s Jockeying For Postseason Momentum

Ruth Arino Ruiz

As NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tourney Nears, There’s Jockeying For Postseason Momentum

Is it possible that one of the Big Four does not qualify for this year’s NCAA Women’s Tournament? It happened in 2016 when Cal didn’t make the cut. Barring a major upset—Hawai’i losing early in the Big West tournament—it’s safe to assume they’re going to NCAAs even if they don’t get their conference’s automatic bid. And, if a non-MPSF team captures one of the at-large spots, one of the nation’s top teams stays home.

CWPA Week 13 Women’s Varsity Poll

Which makes the MPSF Tournament, being held next weekend in Indiana, compelling. First, moving the matches to the Midwest has to impact the Big Four’s dynamic of dominance; Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC are very comfortable in their West Coast digs. Add in Hawai’i’s potential vulnerability—postseason failure is common in NCAA sports—which ratchets up the pressure on any MPSF team not named Bruins to win and ensure they go to the national championship. 

1) UCLA (20-0; 6-0 MPSF); In a defensive struggle befitting the nation’s two stingiest teams, the Bruins and freshman goalie Lauren Steele (20 saves) were a 7-6 winner over host Cal and All-American netminder Isabel Williams (10 saves). Both teams have their biggest rivals this weekend; Cal faces Stanford on  while UCLA faces crosstown nemesis USC in Downtown Los Angeles.

2) Hawai’i (19-3; 7-0 Big West); For the first time since 2016, there could be an at-large team that’s not from the MPSF. Hawai’i, which completed a perfect regular season with a 12-3 win over UC-Santa Barbara last Saturday, is in perfect shape for the Big West tournament. It’s two weeks away, and the Rainbow Wahine will be well-rested. But should they falter and not capture their conference’s automatic NCAA berth, how could anyone keep the nation’s second best team out of the national championship tournament?

3) Stanford (16-4; 4-1 MPSF); It seems unwise to overlook the Cardinal. They’ve won the last two titles and eight since 2011. They’ve also lost to UCLA twice; a third loss (in the MPSF tournament) might prove fatal to their three-peat hopes. First they have to get past Cal in Palo Alto this Friday.

4) USC (17-5; 4-1 MPSF); It seems imperative that the Trojans come up big this Saturday when they host UCLA at Uytengsu Aquatics Center. First, wouldn’t Head Coach Keith Moon’s players love nothing better than to blemish the Bruins’ perfect season? And, either the Trojans or the Golden Bears could be the odd team out of NCAAs.

5) California (14-5; 3-2 MPSF); You gotta feel for the Golden Bears. They stymied the nation’s top team, holding the Bruins to a season-low goal total. Unfortunately, UCLA returned the favor, with rookie Steele outplaying All-American Williams. Up next: The Big Splash against Stanford. Cal can right the ship, starting with The Cardinal.

6) Loyola Marymount (24-2; 6-0 GCC); Unlike Hawai’i, virtually guaranteed a spot in NCAAs, the Lions—on a 17-match win streak that can grow to 18 after Saturday’s home match against Azusa Pacific—have only one shot at NCAAs: capture the GCC’s automatic berth. They’re favored to win their conference tournament but there’s no guarantees, especially against a Fresno State squad which has won the last three titles.

7) Long Beach State (20-7; 5-1 Big West); A win against UC-Irvine this Thursday and The Beach will lock in the second seed in the Big West. This ensures they don’t meet Hawai’i until the final—assuming the Wahine make it. A winner-take-all match for an NCAA berth? I’m sure LBS Head Coach Shana Welch would take that.

8) UC-Irvine (16-10; 4-2 Big West); Because the Anteaters have lost to UC San Diego as well as Hawai’i, they have to beat LBS to avoid top-seeded Hawai’i until the Big West title match. If they lose to The Beach it will break a string of five straight conference finals between UCI and Irvine.

9) Fresno State (16-7; 4-1 GCC); The Bulldogs close out the regular season this weekend against Pacific and Santa Clara. Barring an upset, they will be the #2 seed and in position to leapfrog LMU for the GCC title.

10) Arizona State (22-7; 2-4 MPSF); The Sun Devils will rest up this weekend in preparation for next weekend’s MPSF tournament, to be held in Indiana. Finishing fifth in the conference will cap a successful second season for Head Coach Pedra Parti

11) UC-San Diego (16-10; 4-2 Big West); March was an excellent month for the Tritons, with a seven-match win streak and a single loss—to conference leader Hawai’i. April’s been good too, with two wins and a narrow loss to Long Beach State. Wins this weekend against UC-Davis and San Diego State—the annual Harper Cup between the city’s two collegiate programs—will set UCSD up for a strong showing in the postseason.

12) Princeton (21-6; 10 CWPA); In years past, the CWPA leader would have a contentious rivalry to help prep them for NCAA tournament play. Michigan has been the Tigers’ foil the past few years, but this season the Wolverines have been close but not good enough; Princeton has beaten them twice by a combined five goals. Next weekend in Cambridge the Tigers can complete a perfect conference season at the CWPA Championships—unless Michigan surprises and spoils it.

13) Michigan (20-9; 8-2 CWPA); A Big 10 contest between the Wolverines and Indiana Hoosiers this weekend is a benchmark for Midwest polo, but Head Coach Cassie Churnside will likely be looking past a local rival to the CWPA postseason. As things stand, Michigan likely opens against either Brown or Harvard; a match-up with the host Crimson suggests danger ahead: last year the Wolverines stumbled mightily against them in a similar situation.

14) Indiana (19-8; 1-5 MPSF); The Hoosiers will host the MPSF tournament for the first time since entering the conference in 2019. It’s a big deal; with USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten for football next season, bringing the prestige of the Pac-12 to Bloomington encapsulates what big-time college athletics is all about. 20 wins for the first time since 2018 would be huge for Head Coach Taylor McInerney in her fifth season.

15) UC-Santa Barbara (14-13; 1-5 Big West); A win Thursday against Cal State Fullerton will equal the Gaucho’s conference record last season. The loss to CSUN two weeks ago has got to hurt.

16) Wagner (27-4; 13-0 MAAC); After going undefeated in regular season play for the seventh consecutive season (!) the Seahawks will rest until next weekend’s MAAC Championships. One would predict Wagner is the overwhelming favorite to win another conference title / NCAA berth. But last year LIU changed everything with an upset win in the championship match. The Seahawks success earned a bye into the semifinals; they won’t face the Sharks until the final if both advance—and they should. 

17) UC-Davis (8-17; 0-5 Big West); The idea that the Aggies were preparing for a postseason run by playing the toughest schedule in NCAA polo—which they did—seemed reasonable. But that’s not what’s happened; a three-match losing streak including losses to CSUN and UC-Santa Barbara suggest a quick exit in the Big West tournament.

18) San Jose State (9-13; 0-6 MPSF); If UC-Davis is a disappointment, ditto for SJSU. On March 8 they were 9-7 and playing their best ball of the season. Then, a tough loss to Princeton and defeats at the hands of five MPSF opponents sunk the Spartans.

19) California State University-Northridge (18-14; 2-5 Big West); A team that may be peaking at the best time are the Matadors (what a great mascot / logo! Almost as good at the Gauchos!). They’re hot—one goal wins against UC-Santa Barbara and UC-Davis despite a 5-4 loss to cellar-dweller Cal-State Fullerton—allowing CSUN to appear in the Top 20 on the next-to-last poll of the regular season.

20) Pacific (14-8; 3-2 GCC); The Tigers are on a four-match run, including wins against three GCC opponents. The biggest test of the regular season looms this Friday is: the Bulldogs in Fresno. A win will propel Pacific; they have a final regular season match against GCC foe Concordia.

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