April 27, 2009

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com

Endurance and intelligence.  Those are the two words that I would use to describe what a water polo team needs to survive in the postseason.  Endurance is easy to capture.  Every water polo team swims hard in practice when the campaign begins and tapers off before championships get underway.  Intelligence not only comes through game situations, but through repetition in practice of power play offense, power play defense and tactics used to beat a zone or crash.  Why do I bring this up?  Because the payoff for all the hours spent working in the pool is the jubilation of winning a conference championship and qualifying through to the NCAA tournament.  For five teams that happened this past weekend.

Perhaps the NCAA tournament is the most prestigious tournament in water polo; however the MPSF Championships serve as a worthy undercard match to the NCAA’s main event.  This past weekend was no exception as there were a number of storylines in play on the Islands of Hawaii.  The biggest was obviously the race for an MPSF Championship and NCAA tournament automatic bid.  The title was decided by the only two teams to have held the top ranking this season in first-ranked USC and second-ranked Stanford.  Last week, the two sides faced off and USC dominated the game from the opening sprint.  This time the contest was a tale of two halves.  The first half was all Cardinal as they raced out to a 4-1 halftime lead.  However, USC would show their championship mettle in the second half.  The Trojans fought their way back into the game and took their first and only lead when Forel Davies found the back of the net with 47 seconds left.  That lead would stand up and give USC a 6-5 championship win over Stanford.                     

The other subplot was the race for the final NCAA at-large bid as fourth-ranked Hawaii and fifth-ranked California are both angling for that spot.  Most felt that a Hawaii win over third-ranked UCLA in the tournament’s opening round would seal that bid for the Rainbow Wahine.  However, UCLA held off Hawaii in the match to win, 8-7.  Hawaii bounced back to win fifth place as they followed up the loss to UCLA with wins over seventh-ranked San Diego State and sixth-ranked San Jose State.  The fifth-ranked Golden Bears finished fourth at MPSFs as they defeated San Jose State before losing to top-ranked USC and third-ranked UCLA.  The loss to UCLA was also by an 8-7 count as Tanya Gandy broke Cal’s heart by hitting the winner with under two minutes left.   

Eleventh-ranked Loyola Marymount was favored to come out of the WWPA and they did not disappoint in winning the conference’s automatic bid.  The surprise was that the Lions did not have to face off with 15th-ranked Cal State Bakersfield for the title as the Roadrunners were upset by tournament host Santa Clara.  Loyola Marymount captured the title by defeating Cal State Monterey Bay, Sonoma State and Santa Clara.  Loyola Marymount’s championship win came by an 8-4 count over the Broncos.  Nicole Hughes was once again brilliant for the Lions as she scored four goals in that win.

The SCIAC’s automatic bid came down to two familiar foes in Cal Lutheran and Pomona-Pitzer.  Cal Lutheran entered this game as the top seed as they finished the regular season undefeated for a second straight year.  However, Pomona-Pitzer was the defending tournament champions and the Sagehens were hoping to make a return appearance to the NCAA tournament.  In what was a tense affair, Cal Lutheran was able to avenge their championship loss from last year to the Sagehens and emerge with an 8-7 win.  The Division III power could be pesky in the NCAA Tournament as they have a couple legitimate scorers in juniors Meredith Butte and Ashley Bentz.

Out East there were two spots up for grabs as the CWPA and MAAC contested their conference tournaments.  At the beginning of the MAAC season, Marist looked to be the team to beat and the Red Foxes lived up to that billing by capturing their second straight title and NCAA berth.  Marist defeated Iona, 11-6, behind three goals each from 2009 MAAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player Katelin McCahill and Rachel Sunday.  Last season, Marist finished eighth place at NCAAs and they will be looking to improve on that.  The Red Foxes and Cal Lutheran will likely be the seventh and eighth seeds at the festivities in May.

The CWPA’s championship game came down to 12th-ranked Michigan and 14th-ranked Hartwick and it was all Wolverines.  Up 8-6 after three quarters, Michigan scored four goals and held Hartwick to only three shots in the fourth stanza.  This dominant performance gave Michigan the 12-6 win and another bid to the NCAA tournament.  CWPA Western Division Player of the Year Julie Hyrne led a balanced Wolverine attack with three goals.  Michigan has now won 25 straight games and is still an extremely undervalued squad.  The Wolverines should be ranked no lower than eighth in the country.  Their national ranking is not a current snapshot of how this team is playing right now.

An intriguing subplot in the NCAA tournament seeding process will be what the committee does with Loyola Marymount and Michigan.  The two teams will likely be fighting it out for the fifth seed line.  There is a big difference between fifth and sixth in this year’s tournament as the fifth seeded team will avoid UCLA and should have a much better chance of advancing to the Final Four.  The lone head to head matchup between Loyola Marymount and Michigan was early in the season at the Triton Invitational and Loyola Marymount won 8-6.  However, the Wolverines have the more impressive wins on their resume as they defeated sixth-ranked San Jose State and seventh-ranked San Diego State with the win over the Aztecs coming late in the season in San Diego.

Despite their losses at the MPSF Tournament, second-ranked Stanford and third-ranked UCLA are locks for an NCAA at-large bid as well as the second and third seeds in the NCAA tournament.  The race for the final at-large bid to the NCAA tournament will come down to two teams.  Fourth-ranked Hawaii and fifth-ranked California.  Hawaii has played a stronger schedule (only four of their games came against teams not ranked in the top 20) and won the head to head matchup with California.  The Rainbow Wahine also have the distinction of being the first team left out of the past two NCAA tournaments.  Meanwhile, California finished fourth in the MPSF Tournament which was ahead of Hawaii and had the more impressive overall record as they finished the regular season at 31-8.  However, it should be noted that a large portion of those wins came against teams ranked outside the top 20.  

Player to Watch

Gianna Rossi, UC-Irvine, Sr.:  10th-ranked UC-Irvine won the inaugural Big West women’s championship behind the efforts of senior Gianna Rossi.  Rossi was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.