Women’s water polo tournament defense slips away

USC failed to defend the Triton Invitational and missed out on a placement despite strong performances. 

After losing in the final round of the National Championship tournament last season, the Trojans are 4-2 overall this season. (Drake Lee / Daily Trojan)

The Trojans were unable to become back-to-back champions of the Triton Invitational this weekend, falling short of a top-three placement.

“This is a massive learning opportunity for us,” said Head Coach Casey Moon in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “We’re trying to figure out who we are as a team, we’re trying to figure out our identity, and we haven’t really had any adversity yet as a team.”

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Hosted by No. 9 UC San Diego (6-4, 0-0 Big West) in La Jolla, the 2024 Triton Invitational saw 13 of the top 25 women’s water polo teams in the nation compete for the title. No. 3 UCLA (8-0, 0-0 MPSF) would go on to win it all. 

No. 1 USC (4-2, 0-0 MPSF) entered the tournament as the defending champion, having defeated then-ranked No. 3 UCLA in overtime of the 2023 final. This year, the Trojans kicked off the tournament in Group A facing Concordia University Irvine (2-4, 0-0 Golden Coast) and No. 10 Michigan (6-5, 1-0 CWPA).

In a dominant showing during the team’s first match Friday, redshirt senior attacker Alejandra Aznar tied her career-high five goals in a 20-3 victory over Concordia. Aznar put three away during the Trojans’ 14-point run to start the game. Holding Concordia to only one goal in the first half, which came at 1:39 left in the second quarter from the Golden Eagles’ freshman center defender Sofia Smith, USC continued to control the tempo and set its sights on Michigan.

The Trojans locked in their semifinal spot Saturday morning in a 16-9 win against Michigan led by freshman attacker Ava Stryker’s six goals. Despite the score, it was not the cleanest win. Moon received a yellow card in the third quarter and USC gave up five penalties, three of which were in the fourth quarter. Michigan only converted three of the five penalties into goals, as redshirt senior goalie Carolyne Stern saved the other two. Stern totaled 14 saves by the end of the match. 

“[Stern] knows what we’re about and what we want to do as a program,” Moon said. “We have solid play by her, that gives the entire team confidence. We got to be able to have somebody who can man an entire goal and she’s been doing that pretty well for us.”

Stern continued making double-digit stops during the Saturday afternoon semifinal matchup against No. 5 Fresno State University (8-3, 0-0 Golden Coast). Still, her performance, combined with freshman center Rachel Gazzaniga’s three goals, was not enough as the Trojans suffered their first loss 7-8. Although it led the game for a majority of the first half, USC lost the lead with 5:15 left in the third quarter and trailed for the first time in the tournament three minutes later. 

“A big aspect of it is we’re a really young team with very little experience,” Moon said. “The only way that we’re going to gain experience is to throw the team in the fire and see how they can respond. It’s my job as a coach to try to adjust, and we tried to adjust as best as we could, but I would say it was a little too late.”

Both teams went on to exchange goals during the fourth quarter, but the Trojans were unable to recover.

At the end of the battle for third place on Sunday against No. 4 University of Hawaii at Manoa (8-1, 0-0 Big West), USC once again found itself down in a 6-10 defeat. The Trojans got outscored in the first half 2-6 and were kept completely scoreless in the second quarter. Even with the result, Moon is sure that the team will only improve from here.

“The more practices we have, the more games that we have together, our experience and our chemistry as a team will grow,” Moon said.

USC will head to Irvine Feb. 17 at noon to face UC Irvine at Anteater Aquatics Complex.

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