Here We Go Again; Upsets Aplenty on First Full Weekend of NCAA Women’s Water Polo Season

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Serela Kay and her UC Santa Barbara women upended #2 UCLA to open their season. Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

The first full weekend of NCAA women’s varsity water polo action saw a theme repeated from the men’s season, when a string of early upsets portended an upending of the usual hierarchy of teams—a scenario that continued throughout the 2019 campaign.

[Notes from a Memorable Start to the 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Season]

Lower-ranked squads #5 UC Irvine, #11 UC Santa Barbara and #15 UC San Diego took turns usurping the “Big Four”—as Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC are known—with the #2 Bruins and #4 Golden Bears on the wrong end of surprising outcomes.

The Gauchos scored the weekend’s biggest upset, knocking off the mighty Bruins 9-8 on Friday night at the 2020 UCSB Winter Invite. Which was only fitting; last season, it was the UCSB men who shocked Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) powers USC and Stanford in early September on their way to a first-ever top ranking in the Collegiate Water Polo Association Top 20 Varsity Poll.

[Changing of the Water Polo Guard: UC Santa Barbara #1 in CWPA Top 20]

In their women’s season’s opening match, UC Santa Barbara got outstanding performances from a couple of seniors named Snyder. Sarah Snyder torched the Bruin defense for four scores while Kenzi Snyder (no relation) came up with nine saves in the UCSB cage. It’s the Gaucho’s first win over the Bruins—perennially one of the country’s best–since 1995 and only the second in a rivalry that spans 44 meetings.

Head Coach Serela Kays squad did not let down after their monumental win, beating Iona—visiting from the East Coast—by a 12-4 score. But losses did come; the Gauchos dropped a pair of tough matches—8-5 to Cal and 9-7 to #7 Michigan—before rallying to close a successful weekend with a 19-2 victory over Ottawa.

The Golden Bears win over the Gauchos was one of two victories on the weekend. It’s the two that Head Coach Coralie Simmons’ team lost that are noteworthy. On Saturday #5 UC Irvine spanked Cal 12-7, as five Anteaters—Nina Flynn, Megan Falcon, Tara Prentice, Juliana Shackelford, Piper Smith—scored two goals apiece. It was the first time UCI had beaten Cal since 2005 and only the second win over the Golden Bears in program history (2-19).

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Missing in Action: Cal’s Emma Wright is spending this season with the Canadian National Team.Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

On Sunday, just when it appeared Cal would end its weekend on a high note, 13th-ranked UC San Diego dealt the Golden Bears a loss in a thrilling 14-13 match decided in overtime on a goal by Ciara Franke, her fourth of the game. Taylor Onstott was a major contributor to the Triton win, notching five scores. Sophie Leggett and Claire Sonne had three goals apiece for Cal. It was UC San Diego’s first time win in a brief five-game history between the two teams.

These upsets should come as a surprise; not only is it early in the year, it’s an Olympic year, meaning the rosters of the best programs—and in a ripple effect, those not at the top—have been impacted by red-shirt seasons for national team play.

[CWPA’s Preseason Women’s Water Polo Poll is Out – And Swimming World Has Lots to Say About It]

Michigan had a split weekend, with wins over UC Santa Barbara and #22 Cal State Northridge (CSUN) as well as losses to Cal and UC Irvine. Of all the top teams that competed this weekend, the Anteaters fared the best, going 2-0 behind a strong performance in goal by junior Morgan Jones.

#6 Hawai’i—a Big West rival to UCI—also got off to a fast start, with home wins over #12 Loyola Marymount, #14 Fresno State and #23 Marist. Junior Lalelei Mata’afa rang up 10 goals in the winning efforts. #2 Stanford got easy wins as well, beating #18 San Jose State 13-5 and Sonoma State, a member of the Western Water Polo Association, by an 18-6 score.

More teams will open their seasons next weekend, including NCAA runner-up USC—who perhaps avoided upset by inaction. By the first weekend in February, all NCAA varsity teams will have opened their 2020 seasons, one that will conclude in early May with the NCAA women’s tournament at Pacific’s Chris Kjeldsen Pool Complex and the new USA Water Polo DIII Women’s Collegiate Championship.

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