Women’s water polo begins its title defense

Junior driver Kelsey McIntosh scored at least one goal in 18 games last season, giving USC reliable production. (Emily Smith/Daily Trojan)

After bringing home the national title last season, the USC women’s water polo team will return to the pool this weekend at the Gaucho Invitational in Santa Barbara.

The No. 1 Trojans will take on six opponents this weekend, starting with No. 22 Cal Baptist and Azusa Pacific on Friday. They will then face No. 11 Michigan and Fresno State on Saturday, before wrapping up the invitational with matches against No. 12 UC San Diego and No. 14 Indiana Sunday.

As contenders in last year’s NCAA championship tournament, Michigan and UC San Diego will provide an early challenge for the Trojans this season. Stopping Michigan’s senior attacker Julia Sellers should be a point of focus for the Trojan defense, as Sellers led the Wolverines with 81 goals in 41 games last season.

The Trojans will also need to get creative on offense to counter Michigan’s defensive fortitude. Junior goalie Heidi Ritner allowed an average of only 6.25 goals per game, helping the Wolverines to outscore their opponents by wide margins.

“We know Michigan,” senior goalie Amanda Longen said. “They’re pretty scrappy, they drive a lot, they keep you on the go and they’re persistent the whole way through the game. It will be a really good game for us to experience and for a lot of girls to work on how they defend.”

Sophomores utility Taylor Onstott and attacker Grace Pevehouse lead UC San Diego’s well-rounded offensive attack. Facing sophomore center Ciara Franke, who had 64 steals last season, will force the Trojans to protect the ball well.

Several notable players from last season’s championship team have been replaced by fresh faces. The Trojans lost All-Americans driver Brianna Daboub and utility Hayley McKelvey, both of whom graduated last spring.

Although the team enters the season without some of last year’s stars, coach Jovan Vavic is confident in the talented recruiting class he assembled during the offseason.

“I think our 2019 class could be one of our best classes ever,” Vavic said. “I think they’re going to make an impact immediately.”

This young talent includes driver Alejandra Aznar and two-meter Mireia Guiral, a dynamic duo for Spain in the 2018 FINA Youth World Championships.

“Alejandra is one of the best young players in the world,” Vavic said. “Her skill set is one-of-a-kind, and she’s unique with her high water polo IQ, scoring ability and her speed.”

Of Mireia, Vavic said, “She is a gamer. She does everything, she’s dynamic, and she can play both sides of the ball.”

The Trojans’ captains, seniors goalie Amanda Longan and driver Courtney Fahey, play an instrumental role in familiarizing these young players with the system. The team has been focusing on integrating their new talent for this weekend’s invitational.

“We’ve been trying to work with them to get them to prepare for this weekend and think about the different things they can do,” Fahey said. “Visualizing doing well in the pool, doing the plays correctly and being creative if that’s the right thing to do.”

Although the Trojans have the potential to gain significant leads over their opponents via talented scorers like junior utility Maud Megens and sophomore driver Paige Hauschild, the team also seeks defensive consistency this season.

“It’s always our goal to outscore the opponent, but we want to keep the other teams to as few goals as we can,” Fahey said. “I think one of our biggest challenges will be communicating and doing a good job on defense to allow the least amount of goals in as possible.”

This weekend’s Gaucho Invitational will be one of many non-conference invites for the Women of Troy this season —they travel to Riverside next Saturday for the CBU Mini Invitational.