March 1, 2010

 

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com


Perhaps the Winter Olympics along with the jockeying for spots in March Madness were the dominant sports headlines.  However for those who live and breathe the sport of water polo, the world revolved around the pool at UC-Irvine.  Every single member of the top ten and fourteen of the top sixteen teams in the country were competing at the UC-Irvine Invitational and the action did not disappoint as it even included an eight overtime masterpiece.  A champion was crowned and the push for NCAA at-large bids truly kicked off.

One of the teams that was competing at the UC-Irvine Invitational was ninth-ranked Cal-State Northridge.  The Matadors entered the tournament with a 9-2 overall record and had a respectable showing in Irvine as they defeated fourteenth-ranked UC-Santa Barbara and UC-San Diego while losing to seventh-ranked Loyola Marymount and eighth-ranked Arizona State.  I caught up with their head coach Marcelo Leonardi prior to this weekend’s proceedings and we discussed his team and its prospects.  Below is our interview.

Cal State Northridge is currently ranked ninth in the country which makes you the highest ranked team out of the Big West.  What does your squad have to do to win the Big West and stay on the fringes of the NCAA at-large race?

We need to play consistent water polo.  We also need to win a couple games on the road while protecting our home pool as we will have to travel to beat UCSB, UC-Davis and UOP.  Every team in our conference can compete on the national stage and earn a victory.  We need to challenge ourselves everyday and be prepared for the challenges that face us during practices and in games. Therefore our preparation and daily improvement become crucial in the overall development of our team. When you think about the Big West, it is tightly packed with lots of talent, great coaches, and parity.  We will have to put ourselves in a situation where we can win the Big West regular season title, which will secure us a top seed for the conference tournament. Then, we will have to play our best water polo to win the conference title. It makes the season exciting!

In terms of the NCAA at-large chase, we have the loss to UCLA and defeated Hartwick which was the only other team we lost to.  In order for us to be considered, we would have to win the Big West Championship and Conference Tournament, and have an opportunity to play and win critical games versus teams ranked in the top eight.

Jillian Stapf is arguably the best goalie in the country.  What makes her so special in the cage?

I've been blessed to have coached her for four years.  Jillian is the backbone to our defense. She has the ability to take over games by shutting teams out for quarters at a time. Her size, length, leg strength and presence in the cage is what makes her so effective.  She is intimidating for shooters and gets better as the game progresses. What separates her from most goalies is her ability to adjust and read offenses. In practice or in games, I watch her play and I am amazed at some of the blocks she makes.

Sydney Sonoda is a very underrated player on a national scale and seems to do a really effective job for your team.  What makes her the great player that she is?

As a utility player, Sydney can both guard and set.  She posts up for us quite a bit and has the ability to create mismatches in two-meter.  She knows how to play the game. Her work ethic, toughness, and passion for the game is what makes her a special player.
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A new number one ranked team will be crowned as second-ranked USC handily defeated top-ranked Stanford 10-5.  The Trojans jumped out to an 8-2 halftime lead and never looked back.  Hungarian freshman Patricia Jansco scored three goals while Tumua Anae had twelve saves to lead the defense.  USC made it to the title game by defeating fourth-ranked California 10-5 while Stanford punched their ticket with a 10-4 win over third-ranked UCLA.  UCLA and California faced off for third place and their contest required an NCAA women’s water polo record of eight overtime periods.  Emerging victorious were the six-time defending NCAA Champion UCLA Bruins as they escaped by a 7-6 count with KK Clark scoring the game winner.    

Three teams that have to be pleased with their performance at the UC-Irvine Invitational despite not finishing in the top four are tenth-ranked San Jose State, eighth-ranked Arizona State and sixth-ranked Hawaii.  San Jose State finished in seventh place and defeated fifth-ranked Michigan and seventh-ranked Loyola Marymount in the process.  The win over Michigan in the seventh-place game was particularly impressive as they won 10-3.  The game was over by halftime as San Jose State built a 6-2 lead and cruised from there.  San Jose State deserves a tip of the hat for stepping up their game and taking care of business the way they did.  Dani Curran and Adriana Vogt each had a hat trick in the victory.  The losses that the Spartans suffered as well were both acceptable as they were against second-ranked USC and sixth-ranked Hawaii.  The Rainbow Wahine of Hawaii finished in fifth-place with their only loss coming on the first day to fourth-ranked California.  Hawaii defeated the eighth-ranked Sun Devils in the fifth-place game 9-7 behind three goals each from Leonie Van Der Molen and Carmen Eggens.  The Sun Devils made it into that sixth-place game by knocking off Michigan 11-6.  Arizona State jumped on Michigan from the outset and held an 8-1 lead at halftime.  The star for Arizona State in that contest was their goalie Amanda Young who had twelve saves.

There was water polo played outside of Irvine as the ECACs took place on the campus of the Princeton University.  While the host Tigers impressively made the championship game of the eight team tournament, it was another Ivy League school that walked away with the ECAC crown.  Brown avenged their loss to Princeton from a week ago and also defeated Marist and Wagner out of the MAAC to win the tournament title.  The victory over Princeton was a thriller that was won on a Lauren Presant goal with three seconds left.  Three seniors led the charge as goalie Stephanie Laing anchored the defense while Presant and Sarah Glick provided the goal scoring punch.  The twentieth-ranked Bears are now quietly 8-1 and might be an Eastern sleeper to keep an eye on.   

Player of the Week:

Tumua Anae, USC, Sr.:  The All-American had an outstanding UC-Irvine Invitational for the Women of Troy.  Anae’s performances this weekend included an incredible sixteen save effort against San Jose State as well as a strong twelve save performance in the win over Stanford.

Game to Watch:

There are two monster clashes next weekend as UCLA travels to Hawaii while Cal takes a road trip down the coast to face USC.  The UCLA-Hawaii clash is extremely important for Hawaii as they desperately need a marquee win to enhance their NCAA at-large profile.