April 22, 2013
DAVIS, Calif. -
With a 1-6 conference ledger and the No. 7 seed in the draw, 20th-ranked UC Davis will open play at the 2013 Big West Conference women's water polo championship against the only program to have won the league's title, host UC Irvine. The sixth-ranked and second-seeded Anteaters have claimed all four banners in the short history of the Big West's sponsorship of women's water polo, dispatching the Aggies at some point during each championship run.
Despite this history, head coach Jamey Wright is confident that his team has the tools to unseat the defending champions and advance to the Big West semifinal round. Buoying his optimism is the Aggies' previous showdown with the Anteaters, a 7-6 setback on March 29 in which the two teams battled to four times and four lead changes. It took a desperation lob on a free throw with no time remaining to tip the contest in UCI's favor.
Put simply, the Aggies' conference record is rather deceptive. Four of the six losses were by one goal. In the 9-7 loss to then-No. 7 San Diego State, UC Davis led by a 4-2 halftime margin and later fought back to a 7-7 tie midway in the fourth. In the April 5 setback to Hawai'i, the Aggies rallied back from a seven-goal deficit to pull within a two-goal final margin. UC Davis picked up its first conference victory last Saturday, scoring two goals early in overtime to edge Pacific by a 6-5 score.
"With some minor exceptions, we've done a good job at what I call managing front-court possessions," said Wright. "That's the thing you talk about when you play teams like Stanford and Cal but we have quality teams in our conference who can do the same to you. You have to protect the ball and not give up counterattacks. We've done a good job at that. Throughout conference, that has been important."
Jessica Dunn has scored 204 goals in her career, second in school history. She leads the 2013 Aggies with 97 total points.
(Wayne Tilcock, Davis Enterprise)
Another indicator of UC Davis' play appears in the 6-on-5 stats. In the seven Big West games, the Aggies converted 22 of 48 power plays for a 46 percent success rate. Meanwhile, they have allowed just 12 extra-man goals in 44 chances for a 27.3 clip. The latter will be a key against UC Irvine, which scored four 6-on-5 goals in the March 29 matchup.
"A team like Irvine gets one or two counter goals, hits one or two outside shots and looks to draw four of five kickouts. They'll piece together eight or nine goals. They play good defense with a really good goalie. So they give up five or six goals. That's the basic bluprint of their game. So if you can take their 6-on-5s and limited them to maybe 1-for-5 instead of 4-for-5, that can be all the difference," Wright said.
For that matter, Wright also identifies some areas on which his team will focus in this final week of practice leading up to the conference tournament. Although he applauds the Aggies' penchant for ball control, the U.S. Water Polo Hall of Famer does not want his players to overlook chances to score. "Our focal point will be in staying aggressive and taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves," Wright added. "We tend to be more conservative, passing the ball around and trying to get it into our centers. Sometimes you end up passing yourself into a poor shot. If the best opportunity presents itself early in the shot clock, let's take that shot."
Certainly, the UC Davis personnel has the ability to put up offense. Of the three fourth-year letterwinners on the 2013 roster, two rank among the all-time scorers in UC Davis history. Attacker Carmen Eggert paces the Aggies with 71 total goals in addition to team bests in steals, drawn kickouts, blocks and 6-on-5 shooting. Utility Jessica Dunn, who leads the team with 97 total points (56 goals, 41 assists), became just the second player in program history to amass her 200th career goal. Eggert and Dunn combined for 35 of team's 56 goals scored in conference this year, including 16-for-22 on power plays.
Among the other Aggies to emerge in the Big West portion of the slate are junior Erin Schlueter, who tallied 13 steals and 12 drawn exclusions in conference; and sophomore Keelia Houston, who posted 12 assists in the seven Big West games. Add the return of Kathryn Bailey, whose hat trick against Hawai'i kept the Aggies in the hunt against the top 10 foe, and UC Davis fields one of the speedier teams in its history. When the Aggies have been at their best against Big West foes, their potent counterattack fueled the scoring total.
Look also to senior goalkeeper Riane Woods, who enjoyed two of her best overall games down the Big West stretch. She tallied 11 saves and a steal in the last meeting with the Anteaters. Most recently, Woods posted 11 against just five goals in Saturday's win over Pacific, holding the Tigers scoreless in the third and fourth quarters. Junior Hannah Curran and sophomore Elsie Fullerton also will collectively be a major factor in UC Davis' success this weekend: besides their nine goals, they drew 14 exclusions at a time when the Aggies' 6-on-5 efficiency improved from 39.5 to 45.8 percent.
Put even more simply, UC Davis has put itself in a position to win almost every game in what is arguably the toughest Big West field, top to bottom, in conference history. In a year when top-seeded Hawai'i and No. 8 seed Pacific battled to a one-goal game, Wright's reminder to his team is to "stay in the present moment."
"We have to play it quarter-by-quarter," said Wright. "We can't get ahead of ourselves, we can't dwell on past mistakes. We have to think, `I need to help or I need to press. Someone else is covering the shooter so I'm covering back."
Finally, Wright looks at the challenge of playing the defending champion in its home pool as a unique factor.
"Irvine will have a lot of emotion being at home. Even though they're not the top-seeded team, they are still kind of the favorite. So we have to absorb their wave of positive emotion, weather that storm for a bit, then settle in for a close exciting game.
"If we can play well enough on Friday that we can beat Irvine at their pool, that will give us a world of confidence against San Diego State or Hawai'i or anyone else," Wright added. "Every quarter were we play even or better will be a shot in the arm for us. If we finish the first quarter and it's 1-1, who is more nervous? Probably them. So if we play each quarter even or ahead, our confidence will build as the game goes on."
UC Davis will face UCI in the third game of Friday's quarterfinals, scheduled for 3:30 p.m. The winner of that contest will take on the victory of the San Diego State-UC Santa Barbara game. Top-seeded Hawai'i will open Friday's action with Pacific while No. 4 Long Beach State and No. 5 Cal State Northridge will square off in the second slot of the day.
All eight of the Big West Conference teams rank among last Wednesday's national Top 20: UC Irvine, Hawai'i and San Diego State respectively hold the No. 6 through 8 spots in the poll. Long Beach State checked in at No. 10, Cal State Northridge at No. 14, UC Santa Barbara at No. 16, UC Davis at No. 18 and Pacific at No. 20.
The winner of the Big West Conference tournament earns the automatic qualifier to the NCAA Championship, hosted by Harvard from May 10-13.
2013 BIG WEST CONFERENCE WOMEN'S WATER POLO CHAMPIONSHIP
Anteater Aquatics Complex Apr. 26-28
Friday, Apr. 26 - Quarterfinals
Match 1: #1 Hawai'i vs. #8 Pacific, Noon
Match 2: #4 Long Beach State vs. #5 Cal State Northridge, 1:45 p.m.
Match 3: #2 UC Irvine vs. #7 UC Davis, 3:30 p.m.
Match 4: #3 San Diego State vs. #6 UC Santa Barbara, 5:15 p.m.
Saturday, Apr. 27 - Semifinals
Match 5: Loser #1 vs. Loser #2, Noon
Match 6: Loser #3 vs. Loser #4, 1:45 p.m.
Match 7: Winner #1 vs. Winner #2, 3:30 p.m.
Match 8: Winner #3 vs. Winner #4, 5:15 p.m.
Sunday, Apr. 28 - Finals
Seventh Place: Loser #5 vs. Loser #6, 11 a.m.
Fifth Place: Winner #5 vs. Winner #6, 12:45 p.m.
Third Place: Loser #7 vs. Loser #8, 2:30 p.m.
Championship: Winner #7 vs. Winner #8, 4:15 p.m.