No. 8 UC Davis hosts Cal, Santa Clara Saturday

Senior goalies Haley Cameron (above) and Olivia Husted combine for a .573 average – 188 saves with 140 goals allowed.
(Mark Honbo, Athletics Communications)
March 2, 2016

DAVIS, Calif. - A tournament finale against perennial power California on Sunday sets the stage for... a tournament opener with perennial power California on Saturday. In a quirk of UCI Invitational draw, UC Davis women’s water polo faces the Golden Bears in back-to-back games, Sunday's seventh-place game followed by Saturday's kick off in the one-day Davis Challenge tournament at Schaal Aquatics Center.

Granted, to even call the Challenge a “tournament” may be a stretch – in fact, it consists of a tripleheader with Santa Clara. The Aggies take on the Broncos at 4 p.m. while the two visitors face off in a neutral-water matchup at 1 p.m. However, the 11 a.m. contest with Cal is the true focal point for head coach Jamey Wright and his eighth-ranked squad. The two teams have squared off twice this year, with the Bears winning by three goals each time.  

Last weekend’s eighth-place finish at the UCI Invite is no easy feat, either. The field features nothing but nationally ranked teams. To earn their way into the top half of the bracket, the Aggies had to first take down No. 13 UC San Diego, which results in a play-out against collegiate water polo’s elite. Juniors Bryn Lutz and Carla Tocchini led UC Davis with six goals each, while senior Allyson Hansen chipped in another four. Tocchini was particularly strong in the finale with Cal: her sixth hat trick of the year plus four blocked shots.

With a combined .573 save average (188 saves to 140 goals), the senior goalie tandem of Haley Cameron and Olivia Husted continue to highlight a strong defense that has held opponents to fewer than eight goals a game and a stingy .318 success rate on power play. In fact, Wright points to the latter stat as a bright spot overall. Even the four UCI Invite opponents managed just 3-for-16 for the weekend.

However, the second-day loss to the host Anteaters, especially when compared to the 12-6 win over UCI two weeks earlier, sent Coach Wright to the drawing board.

“The teams we played were about the same level at the Triton as they were at Irvine, but we went 3-1 at one and 1-3 at the other,” said the USA Water Polo Hall of Famer. “We scored nine more goals on 6-on-5s at San Diego than we did at Irvine. If you take away nine goals in four games, it can make a big difference.”

Another significant comparison comes in the flow of the contests. At the UCSD tourney, the Aggies jumped out on opponents, most notably a 4-0 start against UCI and a 7-3 halftime edge on CSUN. Additionally, UC Davis had a tremendous capacity to pile up goals earlier in the season, such as the seven-goal outburst against San Jose State back in early February – a win that pushed the Aggies into the national top 10.

Thus, Wright looks for upticks in his team’s 6-on-5 and transition offense as a way to pull off an upset against No. 6 Cal on Saturday. This week of practice even included drills in which he shortened the exclusion time from 20 seconds to 15 or 10, forcing the offense to attack more aggressively, like a batter in baseball looking to jump on a first-pitch strike.

“I wouldn’t say we were lackadaisical, but there was less of a sense of urgency at UCI than there was at the Triton,” Wright said. “If we play with more intensity with our 6-on-5s, we have a shot of beating Cal. We’ve lost to them by 6-3 and 9-6, so it’s not like it’s outside the realm of possibility. We just have to play better.”

The veteran coach commends his team’s defense, which oddly was an area of concern to start the season given the losses in personnel from 2015 to this season. “Even if we’re a little bit flat, we’re playing pretty good defense,” he said.

Of course, Wright’s objective is not to beat Cal. The process-oriented coach looks to continue his team’s improvement as it marches toward the Big West Conference season. A win over a top MPSF team does not change that. Or, as Wright puts it, “Long Beach State won’t care if we beat Cal.” In the end, the quality of play matters most. Jump out early on Cal rather than falling into a hole, as so often can happen against the strong and athletic Top 10 teams.

Fortunately, Wright features one of those strong and athletic Top 10 teams this year. His close battles earlier this season give him confidence that this 2016 UC Davis team is capable of unprecedented feats.

“Cal’s M.O. is to beat on you right away. You’ve got to be able to absorb that wave, counterpunch, then go for it,” Wright said. “We actually did that last time. It was 2-2 at halftime. It was where we wanted to be. So I’m really putting an emphasis on a good, fast start. We know what we’ll do on our first 6-on-5s. It’s easy to say, hard to do. I really think we have the team to do it. So let’s play well, and the good results will follow.”

The UC Davis-Cal game takes place at 11 a.m., the Cal-Santa Clara neutral game at 1 p.m., then Saturday's finale between Aggies and Broncos at 4 p.m. UC Davis also plays Cal State Monterey Bay in a Sunday road contest at noon.

SKIP SHOTS: UC Davis faces California for the third time in 2016, and the 30th time in its varsity history... The three-goal losses this season are the closest margins since 2009... The then-No. 16 2003 Aggies came the closest to pulling off the upset... That squad took the Golden Bears to overtime before Jodie Needles and Cara Chlebicki scored in the final minute of the second segment to complete a 7-5 win on February 16... Less than a month later at the Gaucho Invitational, UC Davis lost by just a 5-4 margin... Missy Duncan scored on a counterattack to cut the deficit to one, and the Aggies had a 12-second possession to finish but could not force OT... Allyson Hansen’s four total goals in Irvine raised her career sum to 133, moving her ahead of Dakotah Mohr (2008-12) for seventh in Aggie history. She now needs eight to catch Kim Parker (1998-2001) for No. 6 on the school list.

CAL (15-3) slipped into a tie for sixth in the national coaches’ poll, mostly due to a 7-5 upset loss to Michigan at the UCI Invite prior to the seventh-place victory over UC Davis in Sunday’s nightcap... Junior center Emily Loughlin scored four against the Aggies, with freshman Sarah Siepker adding two more... Carla Carrega leads the Bears with 39 goals... Junior Madeline Trabucco leads the Cal goalie platoon with 60 saves with 44 goals allowed... SANTA CLARA (4-7) posted wins against Villanova (13-5) and Pomona-Pitzer (12-5) at Cal Lutherna’s Tina Finali Invitational last weekend, snapping a stretch of six consecutive losses... Senior 2MD Elle Surber scored 10 goals in the two wins: six against the Wildcats, four against the Sagehens… CSUMB (4-14) went 1-3 at the Finali tournament in Thousand Oaks, with its lone win against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps… Sunday's contest will be the second of three meetings between the Otters and Aggies: a 24-3 UC Davis win on January 16, and the Aggies' Senior Day matchup on April 17.