Jan. 14, 2014
DAVIS, Calif. -
The graduation of three of the Aggies' most prolific performers combined with a season opener against a perennial Top 5 power should provide head UC Davis women's water polo coach Jamey Wright with more than his fair share of anxiety. Instead, the Hall of Famer enters his 31st season with a sense of optimism.
To be clear, the 2014 season - which begins with a 1 p.m. home game against California this Saturday - does not bear a half-empty vs. half-full dilemma. Wright knows he has a full supply of water polo talent on his roster. Sure, gone are the services of Jessica Dunn, Carmen Eggert and Riane Woods, who collectively won six All-America honorable mentions and 10 All-Big West Conference nods. However, the remaining veterans and the arrival of key new faces should help fill that void.
Among the returners, senior center Hannah Curran scored 33 goals and drew 30 exclusions last year. Attacker Keelia Houston took even greater strides from a solid freshman year with 29 goals, 36 assists and 32 steals as a sophomore in 2013. Erin Schlueter enjoyed a breakout season as a junior last year, finishing second on the team in both assists (38) and steals (50). The Aggies' lone fifth-year veteran, Alex Rawlinson, is expected to see significant playing time and scoring opportunities.
Add to that mix sophomore Ariel Arcidiacono
, who garnered Western Water Polo Association Newcomer of the Year honors at Colorado State last season. She scored a school-record 73 goals in the Rams' swan song, then joined UC Davis last fall. The upcoming season also welcomes the return of center Allyson Hansen
, who scored 21 goals with 31 drawn kickouts in 2012 but sat out all of 2013 due to a knee injury. According to Wright, she provides an unusual combination: "She's our fastest swimmer, she's tall and strong, and she's left-handed."
Coach Wright expects this nucleus to offset the loss of his departed All-Americans. Eggert and Dunn combined for 140 goals in 2013, and almost 400 goals during their careers. "You don't replace them with two other people," Wright said. "We've got to get more balanced with our scoring, which I think is a healthy thing, anyway. And that's what we've been working for the last two months. A lot of people are getting more comfortable taking those shots where last year, it was `Where's Jessica? Where's Carmen?' They're a year older with a year more understanding that if it's the shot to take, take the shot."
As for Woods, a 2012 all-conference goalkeeper who finished second in school history with 519 career saves, Wright has two returners ready to step in. Junior Jillian Wilding started seven games last year when Woods was out with an injury, responding with 81 saves. She had 12 each against Bakersfield and UC San Diego during that February stretch. Sophomore Haley Cameron stopped 14 shots against 10 goals for a .583 average, one year removed from helping nearby Davis High capture three straight Sac-Joaquin Section titles.
Wright anticipates Wilding and Cameron will get their reps early in the season, with one emerging as the year progresses. "We have two good goalies. They don't have the length that Riane had but they are very good and we have confidence in both of them."
Among the newcomers, two true freshmen should contribute immediately. Carla Tocchini scored 255 career goals as a center at St. Ignatius Prep, earning three All-Central Coast Section awards. She will join forces with Curran and Hansen at two meters, especially while gifted junior Elsie Fullerton (19 goals, 28 drawn kickouts in 2013) makes her return from injury battles. Hannah Harvey, a 5-foot-11 utility from Clovis High School, possesses much of the speed and counterattacking ability that Eggert once provided.
In preparing for the season, Coach Wright also reorganized his offseason training, shifting several of the finite number of workouts from the fall practice season to the winter break. The Aggies reported in late December, rather than early January, providing an extra week without the distractions of school schedules. As a result, Wright feels his team's readiness is higher than ever. "We were able to break things down and really talk things out," he said. "Our knowledge of our after-goal plays, our 6-on-5s, our half-court defense stuff - we're ahead of where we would have been last year or in any other year."
Of course, kicking off the season with an opponent as formidable as Cal necessitates the added preparation. The Aggies have often faced ranked teams on the first day: No. 17 UC Santa Barbara and No. 3 Cal in 2012, No. 20 Bakersfield in 2011, No. 4 Cal in 2010, No. 4 Hawai'i in 2009. The Golden Bears finished at No. 5 in last year's final poll, and facing a team of their caliber gives Wright a better measuring stick: "What a great way to see where we're at. If you don't test yourself against a really good school, you don't really know."
Besides, as a veteran coach, Wright well knows to focus on the journey over the destination, the process over the outcome. Wins and losses, he says, are often beyond his team's direct control. So success will ultimately come down to how well his team can convert its 6-on-5 chances, defend in 5-on-6 situations, and minimize opponent counterattacks. If his team can hit those marks, game after game, UC Davis will more likely achieve its larger goals of winning the Big West Conference title and competing in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.
"Every year, the goals are the same," Wright said. "They haven't changed since we became a varsity program. We set the bar high. We don't know another way to do it.
SKIP SHOTS: At risk of dwelling on the past, Dunn, Eggert and Woods indeed populate the Aggie record book... Dunn finished 2nd in career goals (208) and career points (348), while setting school records in career assists (140), season assists (45) and career minutes per game (21.1)... Eggert, who made the U.S. Senior National Team last summer, ranks 3rd in career goals (189) while her 80 goals is the most by any Aggie not named Tiffany Hodgens... Besides Woods' No. 2 total of 519 saves, she became just the second Aggie netminder to record more than 2,000 minutes (behind Casey Hines' 2,656).
CALIFORNIA is 24-0 against UC Davis in the varsity era, not counting a 5-2 Aggie victory over the Golden Bears' `B' team in 1997... The Bears, picked fourth in the MPSF preseason poll, opened their 2014 season with a 12-4 victory over Pacific on Saturday... Freshman and 2012 Olympian Dora Antal scored three goals to win conference Player of the Week honors... Cal returns four starters from its 17-7 team in 2013, including Junior National Team alumna Tiera Schroeder and 2011 All-America honorable mention Ashley Young.