Jan. 18, 2010

 

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com


Women's water polo season kicks off this weekend with an action packed Michigan Invitational.  This year promises to be outstanding as a number of top performers return and are poised to make an impact.  There are players dotting college teams from upstate New York to Honolulu that competed at the 2009 FINA World Championships and that speaks to the high level of quality that is the NCAA women's game.  

With all that being said, one story dominates the water polo headlines and that will continue until they are dethroned.  Like John Wooden's famous basketball teams of the 1960s and 70s, the UCLA women's water polo teams have been on a historic run.  The Bruins won their fifth straight NCAA title in stirring fashion last season as they walked into the title game an underdog and left NCAA Champions.  However, UCLA enters this season with a new coach as Adam Krikorian has left to lead the United States Women's National team.  Now pacing the sidelines will be Brandon Brooks.  In his playing days, Brooks was a two-time Olympian and two-time NCAA Champion.  We sat down to discuss his UCLA women.  Below is our interview.

You're clearly one of the top goalies America has ever produced.  Two Olympic teams and a Silver Medal say it all.  However, you are stepping into your first Division I head coaching job and are replacing a coach in Adam Krikorian who stepped down last spring after leading UCLA to a fifth straight NCAA title.  Can you tell us a little about that challenge and what you've learned from being at Adam's side?

The challenge is a big one.  It is an honor and privilege to be in the position that I am in.  I am and have always been excited to be a part of the Bruins program.  I am surrounded by great people and I have great kids who practice hard everyday.  It will be hard to measure up to those previous years as we have no seniors on our team while both USC and Stanford are returning Olympians.

Your team lost a number of standout performers; however you return Kelly Easterday, KK Clark and the Orozco sisters.  Can you tell us a little about those four players and what you are expecting out of them this fall?

As a first-year Head Coach, I am grateful for having those talented kids.  Kelly is a talented producer and player on our last two title teams.  She has continued to work hard and will be stepping into more of a feature role.  Kelly will be a leader on the defensive end.  KK Clark showed a lot of talent as a frosh.  As you would expect from a freshman, she was a little up and down.  That will improve and she should hopefully be more consistent.  Priscilla Orozco has been an impact player since her first game.  She is a great leader and has very good composure.  Sarah Orozco surprised people with her game last year.  She is only 5'4"; however she possesses great tenacity and intensity.

What does UCLA have to do to make it six straight NCAA titles?

Our goal is not to make it six straight.  Our goal is to get better each day and be a great team like the other five title teams.  If we do that and win a title, it is a dream come true.  However, what we need to do is focus on getting better each day as a team.

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The two main challengers for UCLA's crown both reside in the MPSF conference.  They are top-ranked Stanford and second-ranked USC.  The Cardinal are led by 2008 United States Olympian Jessica Steffens.  Flanking Steffens are two other returning All-Americans in two-meter Melissa Seidemann and driver Kelly Eaton.  Watch out for impact freshman Annika Dries as she was playing on the United States National team at the 2009 Holiday Cup.  USC lost in the NCAA Championship game by one goal last spring and return a loaded squad itching to get back to that stage.  USC is led by 2008 United States Olympian and 2009 Cutino Award winner Kami Craig.  Joining her in the field are three other returning All-Americans in Joelle Bekhazi, Forel Davies and Kristen Dronberger.  A world-class goalie rotation anchors a formidable USC defense.  USC returns two-time All-American Tumua Anae and Ilse Van Der Meijden.  Van Der Meijden played significant minutes as a freshman and anchored the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal winning Netherlands squad.

Two MPSF squads hunting for an NCAA berth are Hawaii and California.  The Rainbow Wahine return a loaded roster that includes two All-Americans in Leonie Van Der Molen and Dagmar Genee.  Carmen Eggens is back and fresh off appearing in the 2009 FINA World Championships for Canada.  California is pinning their NCAA hopes on five returning All-Americans.  Those All-Americans are Meghan Corso, Camille Hewko, Emily Csikos, Stephanie Schnugg and goalie Stephanie Peckham.  Pay close attention to Csikos.  A natural scorer, Csikos scored fifteen goals to lead Canada to a Silver Medal at the 2009 FINA World Championships.

In the CWPA, Michigan is favored to make a return trip to NCAAs as they return two All-Americans in Leah Robertson and Alison Mantel along with goalie Brittany May.  Hartwick will provide strong competition and they are led by three-time All-American and New Zealander Kirsten Hudson.  Hudson scored one hundred and twenty-four goals last season and also competed for New Zealand in the 2009 FINA World Championships during the summer.

Loyola Marymount is favored to repeat as WWPA Champions as they return an All-American trio in Diana Romero, Casey Flacks and Anne Scott.  UC-San Diego is always tough and will challenge LMU.  The Tritons return All-WWPA selection Stephanie Heinrich and WWPA All-Freshman team member Jessica Tran.  One sleeper to keep an eye on is Colorado State as the Rams return two All-WWPA picks in Alison Pavlik and Krystna McKnight.  Sonoma State will also be strong as they bring back an All-WWPA performer in Laurel Stricklin.

Expect Marist and Wagner to battle it out for the MAAC's automatic bid.  Marist has qualified for two straight NCAA Tournaments and co-MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Jessica Getchius and All-MAAC performer Samantha Swartz are back for the Red Foxes.  Wagner will be their stiffest competition as they return a trio of All-MAAC standouts in Kelsey Rodgers (also co-MAAC Defensive Player of the Year), Natalie Pyrz and Sara Olguin.  In the SCIAC, Cal Lutheran is primed to make a return trip to NCAAs as they return two-time All-American Meredith Butte along with Ashley Bentz, Joy Cyprian and Bobby Sanders.

While the Big West does not have an automatic bid into NCAAs, they do have a number of ranked teams that will make for an exciting race.  UC-Irvine and Cal-State Northridge are the cream of the crop and will compete not only for the conference title but should be on the fringes of the NCAA at-large race.  The Anteaters return All-Big West performers Kat Plummer and Cortney Collyer as well as a Big West co-Freshman of the Year in Morgan Vickers.  Northridge is led by two All-Americans in goalie Jillian Stapf and utility player Sydney Sonoda.