The USC women’s water polo team has earned the title of 2013 MPSF champion and an automatic bid to the NCAA championship tournament after three decisive wins over the weekend in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament.
In a conference tournament that boasted the top five women’s water polo schools in the nation, the Women of Troy seemed to be lost in a crowd of talented players. Throughout the weekend, however, they rose far above the fray, picking up a 21-5 win against No. 7 seed CSU Bakersfield, an 11-5 victory against No. 3 seed Arizona State and an impressive 11-7 win in the championship game against top-seeded Stanford.
The action began on Friday morning as the Women of Troy suited up to take on the Roadrunners of CSU Bakersfield. The Runners kept it close through the first half but were unable to contain the USC offense or break through its ironclad defense in the second half.
Though the USC defense allowed only one goal in the second half, the story of the day was the team’s offense, which was bolstered by both experienced players and youngsters with limited postseason experience. Three different seniors — driver Chelsea Silvers, driver Dominique Sardo and two-meter Nicolina McCall — scored on the day, as did four players in their first year with the team. One of them, freshman two-meter Jayde Appel, tallied a hat trick.
Other top performers against CSU Bakersfield included junior goalie Flora Bolonyai, who racked up 10 saves; junior two-meter Kaleigh Gilchrist, who led the scoring attack with a 5-goal outing; and sophomore driver Monica Vavic, who also recorded a hat trick.
With her fourth goal of the game, Gilchrist notched career goal No. 100, the second time this season a player has accomplished that feat. She joined sophomore teammate Vavic in reaching that milestone; Vavic hit the century mark in the final game of the regular season.
The win against CSU Bakersfield left USC in a tough semifinal game against No. 3 Arizona State. Though the Women of Troy took both of the teams’ regular season matchups, the Sun Devils were entering the game amid a seven-game winning streak and riding a wave of confidence.
USC swiftly replaced that confidence with despair, however, as the Women of Troy rushed out of the gate with six unanswered goals. All season long, the Trojans have relied on second-half domination and wearing out their opponents, but head coach Jovan Vavic wasn’t necessarily surprised with the early offensive outburst.
“Every game is different,” Jovan Vavic said. “You just don’t know what you’re going to get. Our early shots went in and that gave us confidence. When you score early, you want to shoot more.”
Despite ASU’s best efforts in the second quarter to bring the game within three goals, the Women of Troy pulled well ahead in the second half on goals by Sardo and freshman attacker Anni Espar.
Monica Vavic picked up her second hat trick of the weekend against ASU, and the USC defense clamped down on two 6-on-5 opportunities in the fourth quarter to secure the 11-5 victory.
The semifinal victory put the squad in the finals against Stanford, the No. 1-ranked team in the country and top seed in the tournament. The Cardinal handed USC its first and only loss of the season by a score of 6-4 on April 13 at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center.
“We expected to play [Stanford] in the finals,” Vavic said. “They were the best team and we were looking forward to it. We didn’t play our best last time against them, [but] the girls were fired up and played with energy and excitement.”
It was clear that the Women of Troy were determined to avenge their previous defeat. Monica Vavic and junior two-meter Hannah Buckling opened the scoring with two goals apiece, followed by a well-placed skip shot by junior attacker Kelly Mendoza for the team’s fifth goal.
Stanford senior two-meter Melissa Seidemann posted a hat trick in the second quarter to pull the Cardinal closer, but the Trojan offense kept pace with two goals of its own in the frame. With a 7-3 lead going into halftime, USC never looked back.
Junior Madeline Rosenthal opened the scoring after halftime, followed by strikes from Espar and Buckling. When the final buzzer sounded, Bolonyai had collected 9 saves (including an impressive stop on a 5-meter penalty shot), Vavic had earned her third hat trick of the weekend and the Women of Troy had completed their run to the MPSF crown — their first since 2009.
With the tournament victory, USC earns the MPSF’s automatic bid to the NCAA championships, where Stanford and either ASU or UCLA will likely join them. The tournament win will also likely give the Women of Troy the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, putting the team in the best position to take home the national championship.
“We will have an easier schedule,” Jovan Vavic said. “Your first game is against the No. 8 seed, which shouldn’t be a problem. Then you will get the No. 4 or 5 seed, and it will be an easier road to the final game.”
This year’s NCAA tournament will be held in Cambridge, Mass., from May 10-12.