The USC women’s water polo team is set to begin this weekend’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament as a No. 5 seed, and it will first face No. 4-seeded UCLA on Friday at 1:30 p.m. at San Jose State’s Aquatics Center.
Last year, the Women of Troy lost in the championship game of the tournament, but did eventually win an NCAA title by beating Stanford 10-9 in a heated matchup.
This time, however, the defending national champions have lost some of that luster by finishing with three losses in the conference play — the most since 2000. Nonetheless, the team remains confident in pursuit of a mirroring its success of just a season ago.
“We’re feeling a lot more confident,” said senior driver Joelle Bekhazi. “We were prepared last time, but we’re more prepared this time and we’re going to be a whole new team going into the MPSF tournament. The last two weeks we’ve been really working hard, and I have a great feeling about this week.”
It is no surprise the loss of big- name seniors such as goalie Tumua Anae, utility Forel Davies and two-meter Kami Craig have adversely impacted the team’s performance in 2011, but with its own stable group of veterans, this year’s group is set to begin postseason play.
With a roster littered with newcomers such as freshmen two-meters Kaleigh Gilchrist and Maddie Rosenthal, who have recorded 13 and 16 goals, respectively, USC will instead heavily on its veteran core.
“Being a veteran, I have to do a good job in leading the team and show them that during the playoffs, you have to play with the ‘now it’s do or die’ mentality,” Bekhazi said. “The older girls have to play by example and play their hearts out and hopefully the newer girls will follow and it will give the team more energy and excitement.”
During the conference tournament, the Women of Troy also have the opportunity to prove why they are a different team than last year’s bunch, carving out their own identity in the hope of notching an MPSF championship, as well as an NCAA title down the line.
“The key is playing as a unit and playing together and converting our 6-on-5,” Bekhazi said. “We’re always working on our team chemistry, and that’s what sets up apart from other teams. We work hard in and out of the water, and hopefully all our hard work will pay off this weekend.”
The key to success this weekend for the Women of Troy will be based largely on the performance of their defense, which has struggled at times.
“We have been working on defense and being more committed to our defense and not allowing them to get easy goals on us and our 5-on-6 and fast break defense,” Bekhazi said.