May 17, 2010

Kyle Kensing
Special to NCAA.com

SAN DIEGO - Southern California senior Kally Lucas clutched the NCAA water polo championship trophy as she entered the media center for her post-game press conference, a smile that spoke volumes on her face.

"It was honestly one of the best feelings in the world," she said of ending her collegiate career a champion. "And the best part about it was doing it with my best friends."

That trophy is a tangible end to the frustration that the Women of Troy felt at the end of the previous seasons.

"I'm so happy to see our seniors end their careers with a ring," USC coach Jovan Vavic said.

Sending off the team's four upperclassmen with that memento was a topic all weekend for the Women of Troy. Junior Kristen Dronberger said after Saturday's semifinal that "sending [the seniors] off with something more than a diploma" was this team's top priority.

Mission accomplished.

"This was my last water polo game ever," Lucas said. "And to go out with a win was so exciting for me. And besides, my best friends, I wanted to do it for them more than myself. I know how hard they've been working."

The Women of Troy had been in this position the previous two seasons - championship game berth, facing a fellow Mountain Pacific Sports Federation foe with the top prize on the line. And twice USC fell short to rival UCLA.

This go-around, against Stanford, an effort that Vavic called "total team" proved enough for USC to finally get over that hump. And serving as the catalysts were the USC seniors.

Lucas had a pair of goals, as did fellow senior and tournament Most Valuable Player Kami Craig. Tamua Anae had a brilliant performance in goal and was awarded First Team All-Tournament honors.

But as those on the USC team know all too well, for there to be a champion a team needs to come in second. Stanford left San Diego State University's Aztec Aquaplex in that position Sunday.

Fighting back tears, the Cardinal's Kelly Eaton talked after the game of her experiences as a student-athlete.

"I've been around J.T. [coach John Tanner], Suze [assistant coach Susan Ortwein and Kyle [Utsumi, a volunteer assistant coach] for many years now. I grew up in the area and they taught me everything I know. It was a really great experience this year. The whole ride - losing and going to second and coming back ranked No. 1 for this tournament."

An NCAA mantra is "We're going pro in something other than sports."

For the seniors who left the pool Sunday, there will be no professional leagues or draft days or agents. Like thousands of other student-athletes, players like Eaton - who scored four goals Sunday - Lucas, Anae, and Craig will take their next step elsewhere, away from the field of competition.

Lucas said she will work toward her Masters in Communication at USC. Eaton, too, will pursue further education, remaining at Stanford to earn a Masters in Biology.

Also on her agenda as a post-graduate student?

"I'll be at the pool everyday cheering for [next year's Cardinal team]," she said.