All season long, the USC women’s water polo team has had its sights on the grand prize: winning the NCAA tournament. And with the regular season over, the Women of Troy’s road for the title begins now.
Friday marks the beginning of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation post-season tournament, a three-day playoff to determine which team from the stacked conference will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Though the Women of Troy are essentially a lock to make the NCAA tournament with at least an at-large bid, senior and co-captain Dominique Sardo know how important it is to win the conference event.
“The MPSF tournament is tough,” Sardo said. “If we win it, we’re ranked No. 1 going into the NCAA tournament, which will make our path to the final easier.”
No. 2 USC (21-1, 5-1 MPSF) will take on the unranked CSU Bakersfield Roadrunners (12-22, 0-6 MPSF) in Friday’s first-round matchup. The teams last met in Bakersfield on March 30, when the Women of Troy dismantled the Roadrunners’ defense in a 19-goal exhibition.
Though recent history and statistics show USC as the clear favorite, the team is not taking their first-round opponent lightly.
“We don’t look past anyone,” Sardo said. “Every opponent can give us a great game. We need to play our best defense and execute our offense to make it to the semis and the finals.”
The Women of Troy will play, at most, three games this weekend. Should they win against CSU Bakersfield, they will match up against either No. 3-seed Arizona State or No. 6-seed San Jose State. The other side of the bracket is shaping up for a No. 1-seed Stanford (who earned a first-round bye) versus No. 4-seed UCLA semifinal matchup, provided UCLA survives its first round clash with tournament host and No. 5-seed Cal.
Though USC will have the tougher road to the final, the tournament has actually set itself up in the team’s favor. Based on this season’s games, the Women of Troy would much rather see Arizona State than the Bruins in the semifinals. In two games, USC has defeated ASU handily by scores of 13-6 and 11-7. Against UCLA, however, the margins of victory have not been so kind. While the Women of Troy did hold off their crosstown rivals fairly easily in their last game, the Bruins took them down to the wire in their first matchup of the season, as USC managed to come out on top with a nail-biting one-goal victory.
A lack of momentum certainly will not be a problem for USC, coming off a rejuvenating 11-6 win against UCLA last Friday. The team is hoping to ride this wave of success all the way past the MPSF tournament and into the NCAA tournament.
“It was huge [to beat UCLA],” Sardo said. “It was tough to lose to Stanford, but our team bonded beating [UCLA] at their home pool on their senior day. It lit a fire under us and really energized us.”
A lack of experience also should not be a problem for this USC team, carrying five senior leaders into the postseason bolstered by a solid group of juniors and sophomores who have experience in the playoffs. Even the players who haven’t seen collegiate playoff action yet are no strangers to challenging environments.
“The newcomers have international experience,” Sardo said. “With [freshman Jayde] Appel, [junior Hannah] Buckling, and [freshman Anni] Espar, we have enough experience. Everyone knows how tough these games are. The underclassmen play like juniors and seniors.”
Appel and Buckling played competitively in Australia before making the move to Los Angeles, and Espar is a reigning silver medalist from the 2012 London Olympics, where she played on the Spanish national team.
With only one blemish to their record all season long, the Women of Troy will be an exciting bunch to watch in this season’s playoffs. The MPSF tournament begins Friday and will continue until Sunday. The USC-CSU Bakersfield game begins at 11 a.m. in Berkeley, Calif.