The pinnacle of the season is upon us as the NCAA championship finals, the most prestigious event in American water polo, kicks off this weekend in Stockton, California.
The top eight teams in the country, including five conference winners, have earned their place in the quarter-finals, setting the stage for a highly anticipated showdown in a true American ‘Champions League’.
Stanford, the reigning champions, are set to defend their title, which is under considerable threat from USC. That pairing has really dominated the women’s NCAA title, every women’s NCAA title since 2010 being won by either USC or Stanford.
Women’s water polo, however, always guarantees an element of uncertainty, and a surprise could come from any quarter. California and UCLA are always competitive, while UC Irvine stands to prove there is vast quality outside of the MPSF.
Fresno State bulldogs, at their third consecutive NCAA finals, look to mark their territory, while Princeton are the CWPA’s representative for the first time since 2015. Biola are ready to show what their worth, having beaten LIU in the qualifying game today.
2023 Women’s NCAA Finals
Stanford – Conference: MPSF – Ranking: 1
Fresh off their unexpected MPSF title win, the Stanford Cardinal are now setting their sights on defending their NCAA title, a remarkable achievement that they first accomplished in 2015. The NCAAs have been particularly kind to the Cardinal over the years, as they are the only team to have competed in every edition of the competition since 2001, and boast a record eight NCAA titles, more than any other school.
As the top-seeded team in the tournament, Stanford has a relatively smooth path to the final, and with star players like Aria Fischer, Ryann Neushul, Jewel Roemer, and Jenna Flynn leading the charge, they exude confidence in their ability to add yet another trophy to their impressive collection at Stockton this weekend.
Southern California – Conference: MPSF – Ranking: 2
USC’s disappointment at losing the MPSF title in San Jose two weeks ago, especially after losing to Stanford in the NCAA final last season, will undoubtedly fuel their drive to secure a seventh national title. Marko Pintaric’s team has made the final of the last four NCAA championships, winning two (in 2021 and 2018) and losing twice to Stanford (in 2022 and 2019).
The team boasts an impressive roster of talented players, including Australian national team member Tilly Kearns and US national team members Bayley Weber and Paige Hauschild. Additionally, 11 of USC’s players were part of the Trojan team that secured the national championship in 2021, providing a wealth of experience that could prove invaluable in their quest for another title.
California – Conference: MPSF – Ranking: 3
The Cal Bears may have had a lackluster season leading up to the NCAA championships, but a strong performance in the third-place match at the MPSF finals against UCLA may have reinvigorated their hopes. The Bears have a storied history of consistently reaching the NCAA semi-finals, but they haven’t advanced to the final since 2011. In their quarter-final matchup, they will face the CWPA champions Princeton, a team they have defeated in all six of their previous meetings.
Despite not having the same caliber of talent as last year, coach Coralie Simmons – who was recently inducted into the USAWP Hall of Fame – has a talented squad featuring standout players such as goalkeeper Isabel Williams, Dutch international Rozanne Voorvelt, Australian Ruby Swadling, and Cutino Award contender Lily Turner. These players have the potential to create problems for any opposing team.
UCLA – Conference: MPSF – Ranking: 4
UCLA, a seven-time NCAA champion, faces a challenging quarter-final match against UC Irvine, where an upset could potentially unfold. Despite being unbeaten in 33 meetings against Irvine, including a 12-9 victory earlier this season and a narrow 8-7 win in last year’s NCAA quarter-finals, the Bruins are not viewed as front-runners for this year’s title.
In the past, the Bruins have enjoyed considerable success, including a run of five consecutive NCAA championships between 2005 and 2009 under the leadership of current USA women’s head coach Adam Krikorian. However, they have not reached the final since 2021 when they lost to crosstown rivals USC by a hefty margin of 18-9.
The Bruins’ roster is led by Team USA’s Ava Johnson, who plays a pivotal role in the two-meter position. Other players to watch for the Bruins include Katrina Drake and Emma Lineback.
UC Irvine – Conference: Big West – Ranking: 3*
UC Irvine arrives in Stockton for the NCAA championship, boasting a twelve-game winning streak and with the confidence of retaining their Big West title from last season. The Anteaters have qualified for the NCAA championship seven times, but only once, in 2012, did they manage to progress beyond the quarter-finals.
The team, under the guidance of Dan Klatt, has a solid defense anchored by goalkeeper Erin Tharp. Meanwhile, Elena Flynn, the older sister of Jenna Flynn, and Nioka Thomas are expected to be the Anteaters’ main scoring threats. UC Irvine is currently tied in third place in the CWPA’s national poll, alongside California and their quarter-final opponents UCLA.
Fresno State – Conference: GCC – Ranking: 8*
Fresno State has continued their impressive form by reaching the NCAA finals for the third year in a row. However, they face a tough quarter-final opponent in USC, a team they faced at the same stage last year. Despite holding the three-time reigning Golden Coast Conference title, Fresno State cannot afford to underestimate their opponents. In the semi-finals of the GCC tournament, Fresno State secured a hard-fought 5-3 victory against Pacific, which denied the Tigers the chance to compete in their home NCAA tournament.
Princeton – Conference: CWPA – Ranking: 8*
It was widely anticipated that Michigan would secure the CWPA berth for the NCAA tournament this season, given their six-year reign as conference champions. However, it is Princeton who have earned the right to represent the East Coast’s top conference in the national championships, and they have done so in style.
The Tigers have enjoyed an exceptional season, boasting a 15-game unbeaten streak and attaining an all-time high in the CWPA varsity poll (6).
Princeton’s star player is Jovana Sekulic, who is currently flirting with establishing herself in the USA national team; having claimed the coveted CWPA Player of the Year award, an honour previously bestowed only upon Princeton’s Ashleigh Johnson.
Biola – Conference: WWPA – Ranking: Unranked.
Despite being considered underdogs, Biola has demonstrated their tenacity and grit by defeating LIU in the qualifying round, earning them a spot in the NCAA quarter-finals for the first time since 2019. While they may face a daunting challenge in their upcoming match against Stanford, their achievement of reaching this stage of the competition is commendable and deserves recognition.
*Where a NCAA ranking does not exist, the CWPA varsity poll ranking has been used.
NCAA Schedule (CET)
Friday 12th May
21:00 – Quarter-final 1: Stanford vs Biola
23:00 – Quarter-final 2: UCLA vs UC Irvine
01:00 – Quarter-final 3: USC vs Fresno State Bulldogs
03:00 – Quarter-final 4: California vs Princeton
Saturday 13th May
02:00 – Semi-final 1: Stanford/Biola vs UCLA/Irvine
04:00 – Semi-final 2: USC/ Fresno State vs California/Princeton
Sunday 14th May
04:00 – Final – Winner Semi-final 1 vs Winner Semi-final 2