Swimming World’s Top Five Water Polo Events for 2017

UCLA Bruins, 2017 NCAA Men's Champions. Photos Courtesy: Catharyn Haynes/KLC fotos

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

On the cusp of a new year, Swimming World looks to put 2017 in the past, and what better way than with a list of this year’s water polo milestones.

Following is our countdown for men’s and women’s water polo, with a decided focus on what happened in the U.S.

5. Ashleigh Johnson Wins the 2017 Peter J. Cutino Award

There’s no question that Ashleigh Johnson is the best female goalkeeper in the world; her accomplishments in backstopping the U.S. Women’s Senior National Team to gold in the 2016 Rio Olympics are testament enough. Include her contributions to Princeton women’s water polo over four seasons, and Johnson may be the greatest player ever produced on the East Coast. If not for her spectacular ability, it’s likely the Tigers would not have qualified for the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament in 2012 and 2015 nor produced the best four-year record in program history.

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Ashleigh Johnson. Photo Courtesy: Gary Crook

Which is to say that in any other year, Johnson would be a unanimous choice for the Cutino award, given annually to the country’s most outstanding female and male collegiate water polo players. The surprise is that she beat out Maggie Steffens, a difference maker for her Stanford team, in voting by NCAA Division I coaches.

Not only was Steffens—universally acknowledged as the world’s best female player—shut out in 2017; she was a Cutino finalist all four years at Stanford. In three of those years, the Cardinal won NCAA titles.

With the win, Johnson established two milestones; first-ever Eastern born player to win a Cutino and the first winner from a school on the East Coast.

4. Stanford Wins the 2017 NCAA Women’s Title

Speaking of Stanford and Steffens, the Cardinal won a thrilling championship match over arch-rival UCLA in the 2017 NCAA final. The winning tally in an 8-7 victory was provided—of course—by Steffens. She not only stole the ball from the Bruins to set up her team’s winning sequence; a play engineered for her paid off with a spectacular score with seconds remaining to give Stanford its third national title in four years and fifth in eight straight trips to the championship match.

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Maggie Steffens. Photo Courtesy: Stanford Athletics

The shot reverberated on many levels; it capped a spectacular career for six Stanford players who, like Steffens, captured three titles during their time on The Farm. It also allowed Stanford to tie UCLA as the school with the most NCAA championships (114).

Sadly, Steffen’s goal also likely hastened the exit of Bruin head coach Brandon Brooks, who resigned a few months later having dropped three title matches in four years to Stanford’s John Tanner.

3. Continued Dominance of U.S. Women in International Competition

In case your thought there was a theme here; there is: American women absolutely dominate the sport internationally. Despite dropping the 2017 FINA Intercontinental Tournament to Australia—the first tournament loss by Team USA in three years—in 2017 Team USA delivered when it counted most. Fighting their way through a determined Canadian squad to capture the 2017 FINA World League Super Final title in Shanghai, it was at the FINA World Championships later in the summer that the U.S. demonstrated just how deep its roster is.

28-07-2017: Waterpolo: Amerika v Spanje: Boedapest (L-R) during the Gold medal waterpolomatch between women USA and Spain at the final of the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary Photo / Foto: Gertjan Kooij

Photo Courtesy: Beeldboot.nl\Gertjan Kooij

Eight current or former Stanford players—captained by Steffens—represented their country in Budapest. The biggest challenge Adam Krikorian’s squad faced was perhaps from itself, as all-world goalie Ashleigh Johnson took the summer off, and Olympians KK Clark, Kami Craig & Courtney Mathewson retired. But, unlike the Serbian men, the world’s other dominant team, the Yanks took care of business. While Serbia was upset 12-11 by Croatia in the semifinals, the U.S. got past Australia on its way to the finals, where it beat an overmatched Spanish squad 13-6 in front of 8,500 fans to capture a second straight FINA World Championship.

2. US Men’s Performance at FINA Worlds

There’s no question that, after the loss of a number of experienced players—including Tony Azevedo, one of the best water polo players America has ever produced—a young U.S. men’s squad would struggle this year. This summer U.S. Head Coach Dejan Udovicic has brought in a number of young players who experienced the rigors of playing abroad for the first time in their careers.

Johnny Hoopers scores another goal during USA Water Polo National League games.

Johnny Hooper. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Haynes

With only six players with caps in previous international play, the Yank’s collective inexperience was on full display in an almost unimaginable loss to Japan in group play at the 2017 FINA World Championships. Leading 2-1 after the first quarter, the sky fell on Team USA. They allowed Seiya Adachi to torch their defense for seven goals as Japan beat the U.S. 15-7, the Yanks first-ever loss to the Japanese.

Take away that one loss and it wasn’t a bad summer for the Americans. They twice played close matches with a Croatian team that ended up being the top squad in the world this year. They beat Russia and dropped close matches to Italy and Serbia. Plus, they had the youngest team of any of the squads in Budapest.

Team USA’s 13th place finish at FINA Worlds was their worst showing ever, following a 10th place finish at the the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The question is: did America touch bottom with the loss to Japan or is there more disappointment on the horizon?

1. UCLA wins the 2017 NCAA Men’s Title

Perhaps it’s obvious that this most recent event is also the year’s top event. And it’s true that UCLA’s 7-5 win over mortal enemy USC is barely four weeks old. What makes this a chart topper is that no one—perhaps not even the UCLA players themselves—saw this success coming. Losing nine players from last year’s squad, and having to compete in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), thecountry’s toughest conference, the Bruins were not a good bet to make NCAAs, let alone win their third championship in the past four years and 11th overall.

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Adam Wright. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Haynes/KLC fotos

But UCLA Head Coach Adam Wright rightly believed that his team had enough leadership to get the Bruins back in the winner’s circle. Seniors Matt Farmer, Jack Grover, Max Irving and Alex Roelse provided the backbone, while freshman Nikolas Saveljic provided an early season offensive punch that propelled UCLA to 12 straight wins to open the season, including character-building victories over then #1 Cal and #2 USC in the MPSF Invitational. A loss to UC Irvine was a minor misstep in a season long progression from pretender to contender.

A 6-2 record this year against NCAA Final Four opponents demonstrated that the Bruins were deserving of the tournament’s top seed, and when goalie Alex Wolf connected on an empty net goal with two seconds remaining, UCLA completed a remarkable season, deserving of the top spot in Swimming World’s countdown for 2017.

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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