Feb. 19, 2014
DAVIS, Calif. - A 3-2 weekend at the Aggie Shootout bridged the gap between two of the richest tournament fields of the year for UC Davis women's water polo. The 14th-ranked Aggies, who placed ninth at the Triton Invitational two weekends ago, now prepare for the UCI Invitational.
Held at both UC Irvine's Anteater Aquatics Complex and Corona Del Mar High School's Marian Bergeson Aquatic Center, the UCI Invitational annually hosts the toughest field of any collegiate tournament -- including the NCAA Championship. Of the 16 teams, 14 are ranked in the national coaches' poll. Every top 10 team west of the Mississippi River forms the top nine seeds (the only missing top 10 team, No. 8 Princeton, competes in a tournament at Harvard this weekend).
UC Davis joins an all-UC bracket of teams comprising Cal, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara. The Aggies will open with the host Anteaters at 11:45 a.m. on Saturday, then will face one of the other sister schools that afternoon.
Save for a 12-10 setback against San Jose State on Friday and a shoulder injury to senior Erin Schlueter, last weekend's Aggie Shootout went largely as expected for head coach Jamey Wright. UC Davis battled back to dominating second and third quarters in its 10-6 win over the Roadrunners, and rolled past Sonoma State and Cal State East Bay. More importantly, the Aggies showed the number of positive steps taken during the early season.
Freshman Carla Tocchini led the Aggies in scoring for the weekend, shooting 10-for-16 in just 65 minutes of playing time. She hit three against SSU and tied her career high of four against Bakersfield. Tocchini's output moved her into what is now a four-way race for the team scoring lead. She has 18, as does sophomore Allyson Hansen; while senior Hannah Curran and junior Keelia Houston have 17 each.
Tocchini's presence helps provide Wright with a productive nucleus at two meters, along with Curran and Hansen. Furthermore, it has allowed junior Elsie Fullerton to make the transition to two-meter defense as well as show off her perimeter game. She scored four goals over the weekend, two of which were picturesque blasts from long range against San Jose State on Friday.
"If we didn't have Allyson or Carla playing as well as they are, I don't think we could have or would have made that change. And that would have weakened us," Wright said. "That was a big key from the weekend, having Elsie stepping up and burying that outside shot. It's not a shot she was comfortable at taking, and we've worked a lot on it. The way she shoots so well -- that's just a huge weapon for us."
"Even if she didn't have that shot, though, her physicality with the opposing center is something that I don't think anyone in our conference has. Watch the face of the other team's center. I played center so I see it. It's a `what the heck is on me right now?' They use every last bit of energy trying to hold position. That's just pure leg strength. She's just dominating."
One relative breakthrough performance belongs to senior attacker Alex Rawlinson. She finished with seven goals and five assists for the weekend, briefly stealing the show with two third-quarter goals against No. 2 Stanford on Saturday night, then posting a hat trick in Sunday's finale against CSUEB. Rawlinson had scored just three goals in the 10 games leading up to the tournament -- coincidentally against the Pioneers -- but seized the opportunity to step up during the five-game weekend.
"I thought Alex really played great," said Wright. "She's that spark we need, someone who can come into a game and get us going. She did it against Stanford and she got that first goal that got us off the schneid against Bakersfield. She made an immediate impact. It has been fun to watch her blossom as a fifth-year senior.
Despite the highlights, one area of concern for Coach Wright was the 6-on-5 game on either side. UC Davis converted 13 of 33 opportunities for a passable .393 success rate on offense but allowed 18-for-34 (.529) on 5-on-6 situations. This reared its head most dramatically in the loss to SJSU: the Aggies managed only one power play goal in seven chances while the Spartans were successful on 7 of 8.
"San Jose State was a punch in the gut. In 6-v-6, we won the game. If both teams go 50 percent on their 6-on-5s, we probably win the game by five goals," Wright said. "The challenge is playing smart 6-on-5 offense or 5-on-6 defense. When there's a kickout, you have to gather yourself. So we'll do a lot of scrimmaging where we call sudden kickouts. That will be a big focus for our practice today."
All three of UC Davis' Group D associates have appeared on the 2014 schedule. The Aggies battled then No. 4 Cal in the season opener. UC Irvine defeated UC Davis by an 11-4 final at the Stanford Invite back on February 1. UC Santa Barbara lost a 6-5 thriller to the Aggies on the second day of the Triton Invite.
"Win, lose or draw, it's good to play UC Irvine because the road to the NCAAs goes through them," said Wright, on the four-time Big West champ. "The other teams in the conference are good, but one way or another, Irvine is the team you have to be able to beat. Then the way I look at it, we'll either play Cal or UC Santa Barbara. So I don't see a downside to the weekend."
"This is a brutal field. It's kind of daunting and there are days when I ask why we schedule it, but it's how we'll get better. You can't shirk the challenge. Not every team gets to be there. We're lucky to be included in it, so we have to look forward to the challenge, take the opportunity to get better, and see where we are. That's all we can really ask for."
SKIP SHOTS: UC Davis held at No. 14 in the national rankings, which come out at noon each Wednesday... Cal and UC Irvine also stayed at No. 4 and No, 5 respectively while UC Santa Barbara remains in a tie at 16th... The Aggies placed 10th at last year's UCI Invitational... The program's best finish during the varsity era came in 2008, when UC Davis upset San Diego State and San Jose State en route to sixth place... The final UCI standings tend to dictate the following week's national poll; as such, the Aggies jumped from No. 11 to No. 6 with that showing.