Paige Hauschild finds comfort with USC water polo

Freshman Paige Hauschild is not one to brag.

Freshman two-meter woman Paige Hauschild has begun to settle into her position on the defense for the Women of Troy. Photo from USC Athletics.

At the age of 19, she’s already proven herself in the pool — 8 goals in her first three collegiate matches, MPSF awards in her first week as a Trojan and a spot on the U.S. national senior team roster. But ask her about her success, and Hauschild will brush it off, crediting it all to hard work and her teammates’ support.

“My teammates are definitely my favorite part of the game,” Hauschild said. “Playing a team sport has always been something that’s really big for me. We play for the team, we win as a team. It’s what’s always been.”

She’s not the tallest girl on the team, but her teammates say she’s certainly the strongest, and the fastest, too. Junior goalkeeper Amanda Longan calls her refreshing, hard working, a necessary addition to a team looking to win a championship. Senior Brianna Daboub, her captain and team big sister, describes her in one word : beast.

“She’s got really good water polo IQ,” Daboub said. “She understands the game well, she reads the game well and that makes for a great water polo player.”

That IQ is central to why Hauschild is taking over the center defending position. The two-meter slot used to belong to Brigitta Games, Hauschild’s teammate from the U.S. national team who dominated the two-meter slot for the Trojans for three years.

But Games graduated last year, leaving a hole in one of the most vital parts of the USC roster. Even as the youngest starter on the team, Hauschild is the best pick to fill it.

The center position in water polo is similar to the same position in basketball. On offense, five players form an arc around the goal, while the center — typically the strongest and largest athlete on a team — positions themselves two meters away from the goal.

In this spot, the center attempts to use their body to gain an inside edge on the goalkeeper. To defend this position, Hauschild has to be both strong enough to wrestle an opponent while possessing the speed and endurance to race back on a counterattack. Hauschild isn’t as big as many centers, so she uses her length and strength to keep her opponent off balance.

It’s a brutal position, she admits, but it’s worth it.

“It’s hard at first to learn any system or any new technique,” Hauschild said. “But I’ve said it from the beginning, I’m here to fill any role that my team needs. Whatever they need from me, that’s what I’m gonna do.”

For Hauschild, being one of the youngest kids in the pool is the norm. She earned her first spot on the U.S. national team at the age of 15, becoming the youngest name on the roster of a water polo team preparing for the Olympic Games. At the time, it was a transitional position — she played mainly for the youth development team while occasionally training with the senior team. Since then, she’s become used to competing with girls who are older, stronger and more experienced than her.

Those first practices were eye-opening for Hauschild. Despite her humble nature, she was aware of her own skill and speed in the pool. But international play was different — her teammates were taller and stronger, with an intensity and attention to detail that she had never seen before in the pool. It was a fight to keep up.

By last year, however, she became a full-time fixture of the senior team, spending most of her summer on the road with the squad at tournaments in China and Hungary. The final stop was the FINA World Championships, an annual international competition hosted in Budapest.

In Budapest, water polo was different. The streets closed for the opening ceremonies, where CeeLo Green performed in front of swarms of fans. The team took a boat to an island, where tens of thousands of spectators packed the stands.

Hauschild notched her first two national team goals in the opening game against South Africa, a feat that went relatively unnoticed in a dominant 24-2 victory for the Americans. But for a young athlete, the goal meant more — it was a sign that she could hold her own.

“It was just a minor thing for most people because we were all scoring goals,” Hauschild said. “But I was excited on the inside. Everyone else acted cool, like this was what we were supposed to do, but it was a big moment for me, so I was excited but I was trying to keep it cool.”

As the tournament went on, Hauschild spent less time in the pool, but she soaked in the foreign experience of playing for a raucous crowd. Most water polo players are used to small crowds — dozens of fans at high school games, perhaps a couple hundred at a college championship. The opposite was true in Hungary, where water polo is a top sport and typically draws vocal and passionate masses. The final game — which the USA won in a 13-6 victory over the host country — was Hauschild’s favorite memory with the sport.

“It was kind of surreal,” Hauschild said. “I didn’t even think that many people would come for a water polo game. There’s nothing like a crowd like that and an atmosphere like that. It was surreal.”

Hauschild carried that national team experience into her freshman year of college, and the experience quickly showed. She notched a hat trick in her first game, earning MPSF Newcomer of the Week honors after her debut. Since that opening game, she’s scored eight times, including a 4-goal stunner in the Trojans’ shutout against Cal Baptist.

With some young players, this level of early success could be a challenge to combat, with coaches and veterans alike fighting to restrain an inflated ego or overconfidence. But that’s simply not the case for Hauschild, who credited the success to her teammates — for setting her up, for spreading the ball, for believing in her ability.

“It’s really not a problem,” Daboub said. “If you didn’t know her resume, you wouldn’t know just how good she is when you’re out of the pool. She’s got a good head on her shoulders.”

For Hauschild, those early games created confidence, something to build on.

Despite being an international player, she admitted that she entered the season a little meek, eager to pass and hesitant to shoot. Now, as one of the leaders both on the stat sheet and in the pool, she’s feeling herself come into her element.

“When I first showed up, I was a freshman so I would kind of shy away from some risks,” Hauschild said. “But it’s become very clear that the whole team wants me to be finisher on the team and to be aggressive, so that’s what I’m going to do. I think we’re just getting warmed up now, and it’s really exciting.”