PALO ALTO, Calif. -- While most of the principles of the Big West and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation women’s water polo conferences are in California, one has certainly enjoyed far more success than the other.
The MPSF has Southern California, Stanford and UCLA, and they have won every NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship since the inception of the tournament in 2001. After the three advanced to the semifinals, odds are one of them will win this year’s title.
But the Big West is taking notes and learning what made these three the top-tiered teams in the sport and certainly have designs on joining them soon.
This was the first year two teams (UC Irvine and Hawaii) from the Big West Conference got into the NCAA Tournament and even though both were defeated in the first round, coaches and players said they learned something from their opening day.“I think that we are on our way,” Hawaii coach Maureen Cole said. “This is the first time in history two Big West teams are in the NCAA tournament and that goes to show we are competing with those MPSF teams.”
That competition was one-sided, as Hawaii fell to Southern Cal 14-7. Hawaii went 0-6 this season against MPSF teams and were outscored 65-27.
“Baby steps, one step at a time,” Cole said. “We keep competing and playing the best we can and improving. We keep playing a tough schedule and we will improve and compete with them.”
Losing in the opening round was tough for the Hawaii players, but they weren’t crushed by a loss many expected.
“There are the little things we can take away from this game,” said Chloe Barr, the Big West Player of the Year. “We believe in ourselves."
The team still has two consolation games to play and doesn’t want to concede their 2015 season.
“It’s really hard to lose but we have to make sure we recover from that and get ready to play the next game,” Hawaii's Paula Chillida Esforzado said.
UC Irvine’s 6-5 loss to Cal was even harder for players and UCI head coach Dan Klatt to accept, especially since they were leading 5-4 and watched Cal score the last two goals.
“This was the match of the day and a lot of people were looking forward to it,” Klatt said. “We played them a couple of times this year and they kicked our butt. They beat us by 5 early in the year and then beat us again by 4 and it wasn’t even that close.
"Today we came and we played as equals. We executed our game plan well but just struggled at the end.”
Despite the loss and the conference’s struggles with the MPSF, Klatt does believe progress is being made.
“Our conference has been pretty competitive amongst itself and the goal now is to grow that outside of that and become competitive with the top teams and close the gap,” Klatt said. “I think we have a lot of good players in our conference. We just have to find a way to close that gap.”
Cole, along with other Big West coaches, is digging deeper to find jewels in recruiting classes.
"You travel a lot,” Cole said. “All of our players are part of national or international teams and you go to those games. Hawaii is a pretty great place to be. It’s a great university and we are a solid water polo team. I think they enjoy it and they go back home and tell their friends how great Hawaii is.”
UCI freshman Mary Brooks certainly saw how appealing Southern Calfornia was, choosing the Anteaters over Cal.
“All the schools are amazing and it was between here and Cal,” Brooks said. “It was a hard decision but I fell in love with UCI on my recruiting trip. Dan is an amazing coach and I don’t regret my decision.”
Klatt believes Brooks could be one of many that make the decision to come to a Big West school over one in the MPSF.
“Sometimes building something is more exciting,” Klatt said. “Our conference has been pretty competitive amongst itself and the goal now is to grow that outside of that and become competitive with the top teams and close the gap.”