DAVIS, Calif. - If Jamey Wright had any weekend on his mental calendar printed in large, boldface type, the April 28-30 slot was the one. His 11th-ranked UC Davis women's water polo team hosts the six-team Big West Conference tournament at Schaal Aquatics Center, with the fourth-seeded Aggies kicking off the tournament against fifth-seeded CSUN on Friday.
Now wrapping up his 34th season at the helm, the USA Water Polo Hall of Famer takes a process-oriented approach to any season, but particularly one that began with a relatively inexperienced team. Every game (Friday is the 32nd), every tournament (this is the seventh), every weekend (this is the 14th) ultimately served as preparation for this Big West tourney, incremental investments toward the ultimate dividend -- a conference championship and the automatic qualifier for the NCAA tournament.
Throughout the year, Wright was less interested in the actual win-loss outcome of any given game, and more concerned with the growth and progress of his Aggie squad. This weekend, the Xs and Os should be in place, and the results matter. "At this point, it's win and advance," he said. "We can't worry about making sure we're doing this or that well. It's win and advance. So our only focus is on CSUN. This week has been a lot of reviewing of what they do, what we did that worked well against them, and reinforcing what they did well against us."
Appropriately, the two previous meetings with CSUN serve as mileposts to the 2017 UC Davis season. At the time of the first meeting, the Aggies were winless (0-4) with perhaps their lowest-ever national ranking (No. 19). When the two teams squared off in conference play, UC Davis broke the .500 mark (14-13) and reached its highest poll position of the year (No. 10).
Although the Aggies won both meetings -- scores of 13-12 and 13-10, respectively -- neither was an easy battle. "Both were interesting games," said Wright. "In the first game at Cal, we jumped out early, went up [8-3], lost the momentum, then had a dogfight the rest of the way to come from behind. In conference, we got down in the first half, then used our depth and fitness to run past them in the second half to close it out."
Friday's opener features the three leading scorers in the conference. CSUN junior Madeline Sanchez paces all Big West players with 66 goals in just 27 games (2.44 per), while UC Davis juniors Greta Kohlmoos (62) and Paige Virgil (59) rank second and third. Both teams are rich in scorers. The Aggies also boast sophomore Annie Kutt (34 goals, 38 assists), senior Hannah Harvey (28 goals, 33 assists) and sophomore McKenna Hauss (28 goals, 26 assists). The Matadors also have Katelyn Fairchild (46 goals, 29 assists) and Shannon Hovanesian (27 goals, 45 assists) listed high among their offensive leaders.
Wright has also been pleased with his team's defense down the stretch of the year. Holding top-10 foes Hawai'i and UC Irvine to a combined 15 goals shows a massive improvement over the 13.7 per game allowed during 1-8 start to the season. In the all-important power plays, the Aggies went from allowing more than a 50 percent conversion rate to just 39.4 percent against since the start of Big West play in early March.
"In the last couple of games, we've held teams to 2-for-7, 2-for-8," said Wright. "We have to do that against CSUN because they draw exclusions. They're scrappy and grabby, they push off and get open. So we'll be watching a lot of their 6-on-5s and seeing what they do. Fundamentally, our 6-on-5 and 5-on-6 are better right now than they have been all season. Compared to where we were at the beginning of our season, we've come a long way. It has been amazing."
An official tournament page, complete with links to live coverage, is available at the Big West Conference website at http://www.bigwest.org/sports/wwpolo/info/champs.
2017 BIG WEST CONFERENCE WOMEN'S WATER POLO CHAMPIONSHIP
Schaal Aquatics Center (Davis, Calif.)
FRIDAY, APRIL 28
Game 1: No. 4 UC Davis vs. No. 5 CSUN, Noon
Game 2: No. 3 Long Beach State vs. No. 6 UC Santa Barbara, 2 p.m.
SATURDAY, APRIL 29
Game 3: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2 (Fifth Place), 11 a.m.
Game 4: No. 1 UC Irvine vs. Game 1 Winner (Semifinal), 1 p.m.
Game 5: No. 2 Hawai'i vs. Game 2 Winner (Semifinal), 3 p.m.
SUNDAY, APRIL 30
Game 6: Loser Game 4 vs. Loser Game 5 (Third Place), Noon
Game 7: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5 (Championship), 2 p.m.
All-Session Adult: $30
All-Session Student/Youth: $12
Single-Day Adult: $12
Single-Day Student/Youth: $5
SKIP SHOTS: The Big West Conference tournament champion earns the conference's automatic qualifier to the NCAA Championship, hosted by Indiana from May 12-14... All six members rank among the national top 25: No. 6 UC Irvine, No. 8 Hawai'i, No. 11 UC Davis, No. 12 Long Beach State, No. 17 UC Santa Barbara and No. 20t CSUN... This is the ninth year that the Big West has sponsored women's water polo... UC Santa Barbara won the 2016 title, while UC Irvine (2009-12, 2014) and Hawai'i (2013, 2015) captured the previous seven... The No. 3 seed of the tourney has emerged as the champion in each of the last two years... Only three coaches -- UCI's Dan Klatt, Long Beach State's Gavin Arroyo, and UC Davis' Jamey Wright -- have helmed their respective teams for all nine Big West tourneys.
The Big West championship is actually the first of two major women's water polo tournaments held at Schaal Aquatics Center during the upcoming two weeks... The six-day FINA Women's Intercontinental Tournament begins on the Tuesday after... The national teams from USA, Australia, Canada, China, Japan and Kazakhstan will compete in 18 total games during the week... Complete info on this event can be found at the USA Water Polo website at http://www.usawaterpolo.org/sports/w-senior/spec-rel/fina-intercontinental-tournament-17.html.