SAN DIEGO -- Cecilia Leonard has come a long way.

In the case of water polo, it’s pretty far from New Rochelle, N.Y., to San Diego State, site of the 2012 NCAA Championship.

And for a woman who admittedly didn’t like to study, she will graduate in absentia this week from Iona while she juggles taking her last final exam, making a trip to the San Diego Zoo, and then playing one of the best teams in the country in UCLA to open the eight-team tournament on Friday.

Leonard, who has 63 goals and 62 assists this season, is from Plantation, Fla. She was participating in a water polo camp in south Florida early in her prep career when one of the coaches, Iona’s Brian Kelly first noticed her.

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“Brian was just always interested in me and he offered,” Leonard said. “It’s been good. He got me really involved in school. That was not my strong point.”

“Truthfully, I really didn’t care about school before,” Leonard said after practice Thursday. “But coming to Iona was definitely the school for me.”

She gives a lot of credit to Naeemah Ricketts, Iona’s coordinator of academics.

“I helped CC out a lot, but she did it all herself,” Ricketts said. “She turned everything around and got focused and she’s doing great now.” 

Leonard will graduate with a degree in criminal justice, which makes Kelly proud. He is a former men’s player at the school, also coaches the men and is finishing his 17th season coaching the women’s program he started. And he’s just 40.

“I believe she could no doubt play and get starting minutes for any team in the country,” said Kelly, a product of Chicago, who has yet to have his Iona men make it this far. “She’s that good. We’re lucky to have her at Iona.”

If nothing else, she and her teammates are battle-tested, especially back East. The Gaels had a tough road here. They had to beat arch-rival Wagner in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship match April 29, 10-9 in overtime, just two weeks after beating the same team 11-10 in OT to end the MAAC regular-season.

Iona also made a California swing, which East Coast teams must do to keep up. In March, the Gaels played in the Lancer Invite in Riverside, going 4-2, which included an 8-6 victory over Pomona-Pitzer, which plays top-seeded Stanford on Friday.

A year ago, Iona went to this tournament, which was at Michigan, as the eight-seed and got blasted by Stanford 22-7. Stanford went on to win it all, finishing 28-1.

“They had only given up five goals two times previously and we scored seven on them,” Kelly said. “We were effective offensively. We just couldn’t get stops. They were ridiculous. They were unbelievable last year. That was one of the best college women’s teams probably in the history of the sport.”

“Last year, no one knew who we were,” said Leonard, who is ranked third in school history with 276 goals and is Iona’s all-time assist leader with 203. Getting that experience last year helped us put one foot in the door this year. We feel a little bit more confident. We’re just out here to play our best. This is such a huge deal for our school. And me and the other seniors are going to go down in history for making it to NCAAs twice.”

This year the Gaels (24-11) have moved up to the No. 7 seed, but nonetheless open with second-seeded UCLA (21-3). UCLA lost twice to Stanford and once to Cal.

We’re not afraid to play UCLA. The girls are really looking forward to the challenge. We’ve studied a lot of film on them and have a good sound game plan.
-- Iona coach Brian Kelly

“We just can’t get caught in counter,” Leonard said. “We just really need to make sure that our offense is slow and patient and we don’t get the ball stolen. Then we should be in good shape.”

Kelly agreed.

“We’ve had some tough games on our schedule and we’re much better prepared for the first game of this tournament than we were last year,” Kelly said.

Iona leading scorer Amy Olsen, a product of Baytown, Texas, led the Gaels with 83 goals and 69 steals.

“I like being the underdog,” Olsen said. “Everyone roots for the underdog secretly. You want an upset. It kind of gets you fired up. I feel like we have nothing to lose. Go out there and play your game and have fun with it.”

Olsen’s club coach in Houston tried to get her to go someplace where Olsen would play.

“We’ve had a lot of great players from the Houston area,” Kelly said, “especially on the girls side.”

“This is a good fit for me,” said Olsen, like Leonard a first-team all-MAAC selection. Teammate Alyssa Turza,a junior from Orland Park, Ill., scored 76 goals this season and was also named MVP of the MAAC Championship.

“Last year it was a like a new experience for us,” Olsen said. “I don’t think we were expecting too much out of it except just to get better. Now it’s more competitive for us and we have a different outlook and wanting to get as high as we can.”

She laughed.

“Seventh seed is better than eighth seed. That’s moving steadily up.”

Iona might be best known for former basketball star Jeff Ruland and New Rochelle for the fictional characters Rob and Laurie Petrie on the old Dick Van Dyke Show.

“Our program has come really far,” Leonard said. “The talent that we have on this team is a credit to Brian’s recruiting. He’s gotten better players over the year and that’s what got us the chance to be able to come here. Some of the girls are outstanding players and they’ve progressed along the way just by being on our team.

“He recruits from Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida and we have two California girls on our team [including senior Mackenzie Mone from Temecula, who has 74 goals and 62 steals].”

“We’re extremely fired up to play,” he said. “We’re not afraid to play UCLA. The girls are really looking forward to the challenge. We’ve studied a lot of film on them and have a good sound game plan.”

History has shown that upsets like this are rare and no team from outside California has made to the championship match.

“I’m sure they’re going into it where this is a game where they’re hoping to get everyone in and get the backup goalie some time and you know what? We’re going to be as competitive as can be,” Kelly said. “We’re not going to take our foot off the pedal, that’s for sure.

“We’re going to get after ‘em.”