March 24, 2009

 

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com

It is March and this is the month where the magic of the NCAA Tournament occurs.  The heroes of the hardwood are the main event and there have already been plenty of goosebump inducing moments.  However, they are not the only student-athletes giving us March madness as the pool is heating up and Exhibit A is what happened last Tuesday night in Hawaii when second-ranked USC and fourth-ranked Hawaii had a classic duel at the Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Center.

It was a nip and tuck affair the entire way that looked like it would tip the direction of the Rainbow Wahine when they grabbed a 6-4 lead late in the third quarter.  On the ropes, Jovan Vavic’s crew responded as Alexandra Kiss and Kristen Dronberger scored goals to tie the game at six heading into the fourth quarter.  The final stanza was hotly contested.  Finally with 1:58 left on the clock Michelle Stein scored her second goal of the contest to give USC a 7-6 lead.  It would hold up for a USC team that scored a gigantic road victory.  Joelle Bekhazi joined Stein with two goals as well and they led the way. Ilse van der Meijden had nine saves for the Trojans.

This game was critical for a Hawaii team trying desperately to secure an NCAA at-large bid.  While it was a loss that will impact the Rainbow Wahine’s bid to move up the MPSF standings, they once again passed the “eye test”.  Hawaii looks like an NCAA tournament squad.  Their week did get better as the Rainbow Wahine went undefeated at the Aztec Invitational.  They defeated Brown, 18th-ranked Indiana, Pacific and 12th-ranked Hartwick along the way.

Another team making an at-large push is the ninth-ranked Spartans of San Jose State who had a huge weekend in San Diego.  It began with an upset of fifth-ranked San Diego State as the Spartans were able to build a 10-7 lead and then hold the Aztecs off to win, 10-9.  Superstar two-meter Juliet Moss had a hat trick with two of the goals coming in a critical third quarter push.  This win was huge for the Spartans as it gives them hope of finishing the MPSF regular season in fourth place.  San Jose State has a win in their pocket over Hawaii and depending on how scenarios play out; the Spartans have a chance to capture fourth in the MPSF regular season if they beat Arizona State and have some other factors break their way.

San Jose State played two non-league games at the Aztec Invitational and won them both.  The Spartans defeated 18-ranked Indiana, 9-6, and 12th-ranked Hartwick, 16-7. The margin of their victory over Hartwick was particularly impressive as many thought that was a game that Hartwick could steal.  However, San Jose State scored seven unanswered goals to begin the third period to break open a game that was 7-5 at the half.  Tanya Torres scored five goals while Juliet Moss chipped in four to lead San Jose State to a crucial victory.

The aforementioned Aztec Invitational was the marquee event of the weekend as it involved Hawaii, San Jose State, sixth-ranked California, Hartwick, Indiana, Brown, Pacific and host San Diego State.  Outside of Hawaii and San Jose State, the other team that really has to be impressed with their performance this weekend is California.  The Golden Bears went undefeated on the weekend and are also creeping up in the NCAA at-large race.  In its first contest of the weekend, California faced off with Hartwick and pounced on them early.  Cal scored the first eight goals of the contest to put the game away quickly.  The final score was 13-5 with Julie Oreglia’s four goals and Stephanie Pickham’s 16 saves leading the way.  Their final two contests were against Brown and eighteenth-ranked Indiana.  The Brown game was reminiscent of the Hartwick contest as Cal jumped on Brown early and led 7-1 at the half.  Oreglia once again had four goals to lead the Golden Bears to an 11-7 win.  Their final game was more competitive as Indiana turned in a gritty performance for four quarters.  However, the Golden Bears pulled away with four unanswered fourth quarter goals to break open a game that was 4-1 after three stanzas.  Emily Csikos and Erin Scully each had two goals while Stephanie Pickham blocked fourteen shots to lead Cal to a hard-fought 8-1 victory.   

We keep bringing up the NCAA at-large bid and it is because there are an increasing number of teams with quality resumes probably fighting it out for one at-large berth.  In the current eight-team NCAA Tournament structure, automatic bids are awarded to champions of the MPSF, WWPA, SCIAC, MAAC and CWPA.  That leaves three at-large bids that are up for grabs.  Right now, first-ranked Stanford, second-ranked USC and third-ranked UCLA look to be very strong favorites to snag the MPSF crown and two at-large bids.  That leaves teams like Hawaii, Big West favorite UC-Irvine (the Big West does not have an automatic bid yet), San Jose State, California, Arizona State and San Diego State all slugging it out for what is likely to be one at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.  Great water polo will be played to close out this season with this many teams still in the hunt for an NCAA bid.  I fully expect all of these teams to treat every single remaining game as a must-win.

A number of eastern teams took a trip out east this weekend and Princeton was one of them as they followed up on last weekend’s LMU Invitational by playing four games this week.  The Tigers had an impressive 3-1 showing on the week as they defeated Concordia (CA.), Whittier and Chapman by a combined score of 40-19.  Each of those games had a hero as Phoebe Champion scored three goals in the Concordia and Chapman contests while Hayley Bowles had four goals in the win over Whittier.  Princeton’s lone loss during the week was to seventeenth-ranked Long Beach State by an 11-4 count.  The always tough 49ers jumped out to a 5-0 first quarter lead and cruised from there.  Cecila Cannetti led the 49ers with three goals.

WWPA favorite and 10th-ranked Loyola Marymount had two games this week and it was against Wagner and 17th-ranked Long Beach State.  Both games were eerily similar as Loyola Marymount jumped out to a big, early lead and then cruised.  The Lions beat Wagner 9-1 after getting out of the gate with five straight first quarter goals.  Nicole Hughes and Kimberly Benedetti each scored three goals in the victory.  Against Long Beach State, the Lions jumped out to a 5-1 first quarter lead and cruised to a 9-5 win.  Hughes and Diana Romero each scored three goals while Elise Ponce chipped in 11 saves to lead the Lions to their sixth straight victory.

Player to Watch

Juliet Moss, San Jose State, Sr.:  Moss had an electric weekend as she led the Spartans to wins over San Diego State, Indiana and Hartwick.  She plays two-meter and is constantly attracting attention which frees up everybody else on her team.  Moss was an Honorable Mention All-American last season and has trained with the United States Senior National team. 

Contest To Keep An Eye On

There are multiple games with monster ramifications in regards to the NCAA at-large chances of five top ten teams.  California travels to the Duke Kahanamoku Aquatics Center to take on the Rainbow Wahine of Hawaii in what should be a titanic clash.  Meanwhile, San Jose State is making their way out to the desert for a game with Arizona State.  To top it off, Big West favorite UC-Irvine will play both San Jose State and Arizona State in Tempe on Sunday in games that are a must-win for their burgeoning at-large profile.  With all of these contests taking place, we can only be sure of one thing:  March will be madness not only in hoops but in the water as well.