Top-Ranked Trojans Open MPSF Women’s Polo Play against Newcomer Indiana

USC Women's Water Polo defeats Princeton at home.
Waiting for the Hoosiers today at Uytengsu Aquatics Center; the tenacious Trojans. Photo Courtesy: John McGillen

With major tournaments being played almost every weekend, February is the busiest month in the NCAA varsity women’s water polo season. There are noteworthy match-ups all over the country, as teams look to sharpen skills for their respective conference seasons, which typically begin play in March.

mpsf-shield-finalIn a scheduling quirk, the first conference match-up in 2019 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) play for the University of Southern California (12-0) will take place this afternoon, as the nation’s top squad hosts MPSF newcomer Indiana. The “quirk” is that the #20 Hoosiers (1-6; 0-1 MPSF) will not face conference foes in Bloomington in this, their first season in the nation’s top men’s and women’s water polo conference. Head Coach Ryan Castle’s squad dropped it’s first-ever MPSF match last month, 24-4 to #2 Stanford.

Trojans vs. Hoosiers is just one of a handful of meaningful match-ups this weekend among Top Ten teams in the latest Collegiate Water Polo Association’s (CWPA) Top 25 poll. Other noteworthy match-ups include: Stanford (6-0) traveling to Davis to face #11 UC Davis (6-7); #3 UCLA (13-1), which suffered its first loss of the season last Sunday to arch-rival USC, hosting #7 UC Irvine (5-3); and #4 Cal Berkeley (7-1) also traveling to play UC Davis today.

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Indiana Head Coach and his Hoosiers are all in this season for MPSF play, their 1st in the country’s toughest women’s conference. Photo Courtesy: Indiana Athletics

The rest of the Top Ten—#5 Hawai’i (7-1), #6 Michigan (6-5), #8 Arizona State (8-3), #9 UC Santa Barbara (11-3) and #10 Pacific (2-3)—have a brief respite before the Barbara Kalbus Invitational next weekend, hosted by UC Irvine. The Kalbus tournament is perhaps the most important invitational of the season and a last chance for many NCAA contenders, and perhaps a couple of pretenders, to tune up against the nation’s top teams.

With a dominant non-conference win over the Bruins last Sunday at the Triton Invitation, Head Coach Jovan Vavic’s squad (191 goals scored; 34 allowed) separated itself from one of its primary MPSF rivals. Led by hat tricks from Paige Hauschild (19 goals) and Denise Mammolito (15 goals), and a pair of goals from Maud Megens (29 goals), the Trojans broke out to 7-0 lead on one nation’s best teams. It’s still early—and Adam Wright’s UCLA squad is integrating the scoring talents of newcomer Val Ayala (22 goals) as well as the return of junior Maddie Musselman (27 goals)—but it’s hard to ignore that, so far, the top-rank Trojans and second-ranked Stanford apparent head and shoulders above the rest of the MPSF and, by extension, every other team in the country.

In California every other weekend the past month, Indiana owns a lone win— a season-opening victory against #17 (T) UC San Diego—and already dropped a 11-1 decision to USC on January 20. Coach Castle had to know that there would be significant growing pains for his program as it leapt from CWPA competition into the pressure-cooker that’s the MPSF. Three of the Hoosiers’ losses have been to MPSF foes; in addition to the UCS loss in its first weekend of competition, Indiana lost to the Cardinal and by 15-7 to Cal. In what will be a season of lessons more so than wins, perhaps the most important ones imparted is what freshmen Sarah Greeven (4.5 saves per game; 13.78 GAA)—Castle’s top choice in goal—Tina Doherty (15 goals), Lauren Etnyer, Hannah Falls-Hand and Izzy Mandema do against some of the world’s best players.

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Mackenzie Fischer is one of the world’s best—and she’s only a junior. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

There’s no denying the talent in the conference; the MPSF’s top four programs contain an astounding 14 senior national team players, representing the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands and Spain. The elevated competition will certainly harden the Hoosiers for subsequent seasons; more critical is the exposure Castle’s program gains playing in California. Even though they will no longer battle the Wolverines in conference play, Indiana’s chief rival in drawing talented players to the Midwest is Michigan. If they demonstrate measurable progress in MPSF play—by finishing ahead of #12 San Jose State (2-1) in the conference standings—the Hoosiers’ inaugural season in conference play will have been a success.

Perhaps conscious of the Trojans’ fast start, Stanford has also taken to bludgeoning weaker opponents (130 goals in six matches), an unfamiliar approach. In year’s past Head Coach John Tanner’s players have restrained themselves until the matches that matter—against MPSF foes. Stanford’s first major challenge of the young season will likely come next week in the Kalbus Invitation; if they both win out early, the Cardinal will face USC in next Sunday’s final. That match may not be an accurate measure of the season’s best; a year ago Stanford, behind Madison Berggruen (5 goals in 2019) and Mackenzie Fischer (29 goals), handily beat USC 9-3 in the Kalbus final. The Trojans took the lessons learned from that loss and turned it into a winning streak that has now reached an impressive 28-straight. If all indicators are correct, that streak will be at least 30 if the teams meet again for the first time since UCS pinned a 5-4 defeat on Stanford in the 2018 NCAA Championship final.

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UCSB’s Serela Kay and her Gauchos are off to the best start in program history. Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

There was little movement throughout this week’s poll; Arizona State moved up a spot thanks to a 7-5 win over UC Santa Barbara. After a buzzer-beating goal by Kate Pitkin, the Gauchos (11-3) slipped up, dropping matches to Big West rival UC Irvine and the Sun Devils last weekend at the Triton Invitational.

The only other teams making any significant moves were a couple of programs that last weekend hosted invitationals. UC San Diego (4-6) jumped three spots from last week thanks to wins over #25 Marist (5-5) and #16 Long Beach State (2-6) at its own tournament, the Triton Invitational. The #22-ranked Bison (7-2) picked up two spots based upon three wins in four matches at the Bucknell Invitational; the one loss was perhaps more telling about Jack McBride’s team’s hopes this season; a 12-3 loss to #19 Wagner (7-5) that saw the visiting Seahawks jump to an 8-3 lead in the first half and then shut out their hosts in the second.