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Preview: Women’s NCAA heads to Ann Arbor, Michigan
Photo: USC Trojans
With the majority of Europe’s professional women’s leagues drawing to a close, we now turn our attention 4000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, where the 20th Women’s NCAA water polo championships nears closer.
The four day tournament (4th-8th May, 2022) will be held at the Donald B. Canham Natatorium in Michigan, with nine teams from six conferences vying for the national title. Last season’s champions, USC (2), are bidding to join Stanford (1) and UCLA (3) in winning a record-equaling 7th NCAA title, but the Trojans will also face stiff competition from California Bears (3) as well as the hosts themselves, Michigan.
While the professional game is ever-growing in Europe, the collegiate system is still a driving force in the development of the women’s game, being the destination of choice for many of the worlds most talented players. The collegiate system continues to underpin a hugely successful national team programme – evident by the obvious successes of the USA Women’s National Team.
Our preview begins with the hosts Michigan, who ranked at 7th, will feel that if they can cause an upset if they can harness a decent home advantage. Dr Marcelo Leonardi has done a great job at with the Wolverines since his arrival in 2014, leading them to the Semi-Finals back in 2016, and consistently taking Michigan to the Quarter-finals in the last six NCAA Finals.
As for this season, Michigan are in really decent form, unbeaten in 10 matches stretching back to the end of March, although the games they have played during that time are ones you would expect them to win. Their top goal-scorer is Maddie O’Reilly, who has an impressive 72 goals to her name so far this season, while another standout player for Michigan is the experienced Australian International, Maddy Steere.
While Michigan have been impressive in the CWPA conference, winning all 12 of their matches, their recent record against their semi-final opponents, Cal, does not make for good reading. Michigan have only one win in their last five matches against California, with that win coming in January 2021. The two sides have already met on two occasions this season, with Cal coming out on top both times – with a 12-8 win at the ASU Cross-Conference Challenge, and a 13-8 win in Ann Arbour last month.
Photo: Michigan Water Polo
USC Trojans – Conference: MPSF – Ranking: 2
Next up are the reigning champions, USC, who look like a really good outfit once more this year. Under the stewardship of Marko Pinatric, who lead them through a blistering final last year (18-9 vs UCLA), the Trojans are as menacing as they have ever been. The six-time champions (2004, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2018 & 2021) will be expecting to add to their trophy cabinet again this year.
In the previous 17 seasons they have entered the NCAA finals, they have made the semi-finals on every single occasion, and have only missed out on the Final six times. They will be extremely confident that they can continue this record as they face the Fresno State Bulldogs on on Friday 6th May – a side that they have already beaten 15-11 this season.
Southern California’s squad is stacked with quality, and they don’t have to look any further than their two Olympians from Tokyo, Tilly Kearns (Australia) and Paige Hauschild (USA) for inspiration – with both featuring in this season’s MPSF all-star team. The Aussie Stinger, Kearns, is the Trojan’s leading scorer this year with 56 goals, but senior Bayley Weber is hot on her heels, with 50 scores.
The Trojan’s are not used to losing games, and that shows in the form guide. From 21 games, they have won 18, which is a formidable record to be envied by any team in the NCAA. Southern California’s only concern may be the teams they have lost to this year – Stanford (twice) and UCLA. If they are to retain their title, they will almost certainly have to defeat one of these two teams, something they have not done all season.
Photo: Yannick Peterhans/USC Athletics
Stanford Cardinal – Conference: MPSF – Ranking: 1
On paper, the biggest threat to USC is that presented by Stanford, the 7 time US champions. The top seeds for the NCAA finals, lead by long-time coach (25 years) John Tanner, are the only team to have played in every NCAA finals.
Like most seasons, the Cardinal are machine-like in their efficiency to grind out victories. In 24 outings this year, they have only come a cropper twice – they lost to Cal in sudden death at their own invitational back in February, and again at the Avery Aquatic Centre against USC three weeks ago. However, they are currently unbeaten in 8 matches, a winning streak that included victories over all of the seeded teams for this years NCAA Finals (Cal, UCLA and USC).
Leading the way for the Cardinal is their All-American trio of the two Fischer sisters (Aria and Makenzie) and Ryann Neushul. Makenzie Fischer leads the goal scoring charts this season for Stanford with a 64 conversions in 19 games – numbers that put her 6th in the MPSF all-time goal scoring charts. Aria Fischer is on 52 goals from 19 games, while Neushul has 51 from 20. Maya Avital has been solid in goal for Stanford, averaging only 7 goals against per game.
While Stanford are expected to breeze past Wagner or Salem, they will probably face their huge rivals, UCLA, in the Semi-finals, which is a match-up that has on eight occasions featured as the NCAA final.
Photo: Stanford Cardinal
UCLA – Conference: MPSF – Ranking: 4
Having won 5 successive NCAA titles between 2005-2009, UCLA have not won a NCAA title in well over a decade, and Adam Wright will be desperate to end that NCAA trophy drought. Having been put to the sword last season in the final, the Bruins will be eager to put right the wrongs of their recent past.
While UCLA are always a close-knit, classy outfit, they do not come into these championship finals in the best of form – having lost 4 of their last 6 matches (Stanford 2, USC & Cal Bears). However, they will no doubt reflect on those results, and use them to drive them forward in Michigan.
Arguably the best player in the league, the Bruins have the top goal-scorer and MVP from Tokyo 2020, and our Total Player of the year 2021, Maddie Musselman. Musselman has 68 goals this season already, continuing her good form from the summer. The support cast alongside Musselman includes two very talented freshmen from Laguna Beach, Molly Renner and Emma Lineback, and the powerful Ava Johnson at Center-forward.
UCLA have faced their Semi-final opponents, Irvine, already this season, winning 14-8. In that game, Maddie Musselman became the Bruins’ all-time leading-scorer, scoring five.
Photo: Deanna Wentzel/UCLA Bruins
California Bears – Conference: MPSF – Ranking: 3
Probably the most interesting side coming into these Finals are California Bears, led by Olympic Silver Medallist from 2000, Coralie Simmons. Alongside Simmons as her assistant coach is her former teammate, Heather Petri. Together, the two outstanding former players have crafted a really well-drilled side capable of going one better than 2011 – when the Bears lost to Stanford in the final.
Led by their two Olympians, Emma Wright (Canada, 48 goals) and Kitty Joustra (Netherlands, 29 goals), the Bears have caused real trouble for many of the top sides they’ve played this season, which includes a notable victory over Stanford. The former Greek international, Elli Protopapas, has recently been in fine form, as has the 6ft 3, Isabel Williams – the USA Junior International has been fantastic in between the sticks for Cal this season
In the last month alone, they have been close losers to Stanford, UCLA and USC, but know they are by no means far off those sides.
UC Irvine Anteaters – Conference: Big West – Ranking: 5
In the tournament for the 7th time is UC Irvine, led by Dan Klatt. The side from the Big West conference denied Hawaii in Honolulu with a 11-8 win last weekend to secure passage to the NCAA Finals – where they will now meet the UCLA Bruins. The big threat from the Anteaters is presented by the returning Tara Prentice, formerly of UCLA – who tops their goal charts with 72 goals in 28 games. Elena Flynn is also one to look out for, netting four in the victory over the Rainbow Wahine.
Photo: UC Irvine Water Polo
Fresno State Bulldogs – Conference: GCC – Ranking: 8
The representatives of the Golden Coast Conference are the Champions are the Fresno State Bulldogs, who will seek to dethrone the reigning champions, USC. Unbeaten in 16 games dating back to early February, Natalie Benson’s team will know they have a tough ask to beat USC – who beat them 15-11 earlier this season.
However, the Bulldog’s know they have a top quality keeper in the shape of Spaniard, Paula Nieto – who helped her national team secure a Gold Medal at the World Junior Championships in Serbia back in 2018. Amongst their ranks includes the former FTC player, Fanni Muszany, who is Fresno’s top goal scorer with 58 goals, as well as attacker Daphne Guevremont – who was called up to Canada’s national team for their Intercontinental Cup competition earlier this year.
Photo: Fresno State Athletics
Wagner Seahwaks – Conference: MAAC – Ranking: 13
Wagner are the first of the two teams that will compete in the Play-offs, as the Seahawks come into these NCAA championships as the champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (their seventh conference trophy in nine years).
Led by Ciaran Wolohan, the Seahawks have had one of the best seasons in their history, and are comprised of many foreign imports looking to make their mark on these championships including their top goal-scorer from New Zealand, Malia Josephson, Abbey Simshauser (Australia) and the former player of Spanish Division de Primera side CN Moscado, Sofia Diaz.
Wagner have played more competitive matches than any other side at this stage of the NCAA championships with 37 games under their belt with an extremely impressive 34-3 record that features a 17 game unbeaten run.
Salem Tigers (WV) –Conference: WWPA
Hailing from West Virginia is that of Salem Tigers – who are making their NCAA finals debut in Ann Arbour. Justin Kassab’s side were perhaps fortunate to progress to the finals, with a 11-10 sudden death victory over California State East Bay last weekend.
They are currently 7 games without a defeat, but it fair to say they have been hugely inconsistent this campaign, winning 18 and losing 16. A hugely diverse team, their top goal scorer is the Dutch Annefleur ten Bloemendal who has over 100 goals for the Tigers, while the roster includes: three Aussies (Piper, Woodbine and Zappia), a Kiwi in the shape of Heather Lock, Courtney O’ Shaughnessy of South Africa, Margheritta Garibbo of Rari Nantes Imperia (Italy) and Shemiyah Ross, from Trinidad and Tobago.
Photo: Salem Tigers
Fixture Schedule ( in CET)
Wednesday, 4th May
Play-Off – 8:00pm – Wagner vs Salem
Friday, 6th May
Quarter Final 1 – 6:00pm – Stanford vs Wagner OR Salem
Quarter Final 2 – 8:00pm – UCLA vs UC Irvine
Quarter Final 3 – 10:00pm – Southern California vs Fresno State
Quarter Final 4 – 12:00pm – California vs Michigan
Saturday, 7th May
Semi Final 1 – 9:00pm – Winner QF 1 vs Winner QF 2
Semi Final 2 – 11:00pm – Winner QF 3 vs Winner QF 4
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