Preview: Women's Water Polo Championships

Stanford will host the women's water polo championships this Friday through Sunday, just months after hosting the men's finals this December. Without missing a stroke, contributing writer Craig Harbick previews the eight-team field that will battle for the national championship this weekend.

8. Pomona-Pitzer (17-11, 8-1 SCIAC)

First-round opponent: UCLA, 5:00 PM [All first-round games are Friday.]

About the Sagehens: Pomona-Pitzer returns as the champion of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Behind coach Alex Rodriguez (not that one) and assistant Terry Kimberling, Pomona-Pitzer finished seventh last year, defeating Wagner, 7-6, in a hard-fought Sunday consolation game. They're actually a combined team made up of students from two of the Claremont colleges.

How they got here: Pomona-Pitzer narrowly defeated Cal-Lutheran 8-7 in the SCIAC championship game to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA championships. Senior Laura Condon and freshman Tamara Perea led the Sagehens with two goals apiece, while senior goalie Elena Peifer recorded eight saves.

Outlook in the tournament: If history is any indicator, this is a true David and Goliath game. UCLA comes into the tournament undefeated in the best conference in the country, while Pomona-Pitzer was 0-4 against teams from the MPSF this year. In past years, these first-round games have gotten ugly fast, with scores sometimes as lopsided as 20-0. On Saturday, things won't get much easier, as San Diego State and UC-Davis are both solid teams, although not quite at UCLA's caliber. A likely seventh-place game with Marist on Sunday should be close, albeit a bit ugly.

7. Marist (27-7, 10-0 MAAC)

First-round opponent: Stanford, 1:30 PM

About the Red Foxes: One of two east-coast teams, Marist hails from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. They last made the NCAA Tournament in 2006. Leading scorers include Maggie Hatcher with 61 goals, Kristen Barnett with 58 goals and Katelin McCahill with 56 goals. Goalie Elizabeth Davis, has registered 292 saves this year, posting an impressive 6.88 goals-against average.

How they got here: Marist held off hard-charging Iona 7-6 in the MAAC championships to complete their perfect conference season and secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. They were led by Tournament MVP McCahill and Angie Rampton and Elizabeth Davis, who were each named to the All-Tournament team.

Outlook in the tournament: Things look eerily similar to 2006, the last time Marist made the NCAA Tournament. They lost to Stanford 17-2, and the outlook doesn't look any brighter tomorrow. They'll most likely play No. 11 Michigan on Saturday, which could be a good game if Marist can stay close early.

6. Michigan (33-9, 19-0 CWPA)

First-round opponent: USC, 3:15 PM

About the Wolverines: Michigan has been very solid this year, easily dominating most of the competition in the East, and entering the Championships ranked No. 11 in the nation. Perennial CWPA power Hartwick is the only Eastern team that gave Michigan any trouble this year, but Michigan pulled out three victories. Their leading scorers are junior Julie Hyrne with 65 goals, freshman Allison Mantel with 48 goals and sophomore Leah Robertson with 42 goals. Junior Goalkeeper Brittany May mans the cage with a 6.65 GAA. They are coached by Katie Card and Matt Anderson in his sixth season.

How they got here: Michigan beat #14 Hartwick 10-7 in the CWPA Eastern Championship. They were led by Sunnyvale native Julie Hyrne, who had four goals and was named the Championship MVP.

Outlook in the tournament: Michigan is a decent team, but USC is just better. Scores might not be as lopsided as in the UCLA and Stanford games, but expect USC to pull away early and score often, with the final score not reflecting Michigan's quality. Michigan should rebound in games two and three, putting up a good fight against the winner of the UC Davis-San Diego State game, and convincingly beating whomever they play on Sunday.

5. UC Davis (26-8, 15-1 WWPA)

First Round Opponent: San Diego State, 6:45 PM

About the Aggies: UC Davis comes into this tournament ranked No. 9 in the country, largely thanks to their eight seniors. This is their first tournament since 2006, when they hosted and finished fifth. Davis sports a storied history from the pre-NCAA era, but this year is led by senior Christi Raycroft with 45 goals, senior Laura Uribe with 42 goals, and senior driver Cassie Mota, their offensive sparkplug. Sophomore goalkeeper Casey Hines brings a 5.9 GAA. They are coached by Jamey Wright in his 25th year as head coach. An interesting note is that this is the last year UC-Davis will represent the WWPA. Next year, they and five other schools will break off to form the Big West conference, which will not be eligible for an automatic bid until 2011.

How they got here: The Western Water Polo Association tournament was very close, with four games being decided by one goal. Top-seeded UC Davis squeaked past Santa Clara 5-4 in the semis and arch-rival Loyola Marymount 10-9 in the finals. The Aggies were led by Raycroft's three goals, and seniors Jessica Soza and Uribe were named to the All-Tournament team.

Outlook in the tournament: Friday's final game against San Diego State looks to be the most exciting of the day. San Diego State, with its MPSF affiliation, looks to be the favorite, but UC Davis's seniors bring experience and a hunger. The game should come down to the last quarter, where Davis will need to continue their strong team play if they hope to triumph.

4. San Diego State (29-6, 8-4 MPSF)

First Round Opponent: UC Davis, 6:45 PM

About the Aztecs: The fifth-ranked Aztecs took fourth in the MPSF, with juniors Anna Gonzalez and Jenna Schuster both named to the All-MPSF second team. Junior Erinn Greenwood adds another potent threat both on offense and at two-meter defender, while goalkeeper Fenske sports a 7.03 GAA. San Diego is coached by Carin Crawford in her tenth season.

How they got here: San Diego's selection is the most controversial of the tournament. Despite finishing a solid fourth during regular season in MPSF play, they suffered unexpected losses to UC Davis and Arizona State. Most notably, despite losing to No. 4 Hawaii, 10-9, in the MPSF Tournament quarterfinals, the selection committee still chose San Diego ahead of Hawaii for the second straight year.

Outlook in the tournament: Last year the Aztecs squeaked past Loyola Marymount before losing to Stanford 13-4 in the second round. Sharpshooter Gonzalez was shut down by the Stanford defense in that game, and UC Davis will have to do the same if they hope to repeat their 8-7 victory from earlier this year. If San Diego can get past UC Davis, they will most likely play UCLA, who beat them convincingly in MPSF play.

3. University of Southern California (19-7, 12-3 MPSF)

First Round Opponent: University of Michigan, 3:15 PM

About the Trojans: USC's season started off a little shaky with surprise losses to Arizona State and Cal early on. The Trojans seem to have righted their ship recently, though, and look poised to make a deep run. Senior Veronika Bartunkova and sophomore Tumua Anae are first team All-MPSF selections, and have 44 goals and a 4.7 GAA respectively. Senior Miranda Nichols is one of the conference's best defenders and earned a Second Team All-Conference spot. Michele Stein leads the team with 52 goals on the season. They are coached by Jovan Vavic, in his 14th season, who looks to win the women's championship back for the first time since 2004.

How they got here: USC upset Stanford 5-4 in overtime of the MPSF semifinals before losing to UCLA 8-7 in the championship game. They received an at-large bid to the tournament.

Outlook in the tournament: USC should have no problem against U-of-M on the first day -- like recent Rose Bowls all over again. Stanford, however, presents a much tougher challenge on Saturday. USC holds a 2-1 advantage on the season, but all three games were decided by one goal, and two went into overtime. USC will have to take advantage of Stanford's mismatch in the hole and limit the Cardinal's ability to make multiple passes and get one-on-one shots against the goalie. The Trojans usually play tough man-to-man defense, but have been known to give up a few easy goals on lobs or defensive break-downs. Stanford has been very good at taking advantage of these this season.

2. Stanford University (25-4, 13-2)

First round opponent: Marist, 1:30 PM

About the Cardinal: Stanford has put together a season that defied expectations. After losing four very decorated seniors in goalie Meredith McColl, drivers Katie Hansen and Christina Hewko, and two-meter defender Allison Gregorka, most had the Cardinal written off as rebuilding this year. Plus, defender Jessica Steffens is taking a year off to train with the Olympic team, and Stanford has only one senior who sees significant playing time -- driver Jackie Gauthier. Despite these challenges, Stanford has put together another fantastic season under head coach John Tanner and associate head coach Susan Ortwein in their 11th season. They are led by a fantastic group of juniors, notably Lolo Silver, Kira Hillman, Heather West, Koree Blyleven and Megan May. But perhaps the bigger surprise is a freshmen class -- goalies Amber Oland and Kim Hall, Chelsea Smith-Carmichael, Kim Krueger, Jenna Gunderson, Emily Clopp, and Allie Gerrity -- that has Stanford ready to bring a championship trophy back to the Farm.

On offense, the Cardinal feature a balanced offense that scores both off sets and with a strong transition game. Lauren Silver leads all players with 66 goals, and has also significantly improved her shot selection and defense. Jackie Gauthier and sophomore Kelly Eaton each have 45 goals and are dangerous in transition . Kira Hillman has scored 36 goals this season and has displayed an uncanny ability at times to read the goalie on lobs and smart shots from the corner. The Cardinal's greatest asset, however, is their ability to get every member of the team involved in the offense.

On defense, Stanford has been anchored in goal by freshman Amber Oland, who sports an excellent 5.19 GAA. Freshman Allie Gerrity has been solid at two-meter defense, but the Cardinal's greatest asset has been its ability to apply solid zone defense with every player acting in unison to provide help where needed.

How they got here: Stanford spent much of the season ranked second in the nation, after beating USC in the UC-Irvine tournament. Their only losses were to top-ranked UCLA and the Trojans, 5-4 in the MPSF semifinals. Stanford responded from that USC loss with by beating Hawaii 10-8 in the third-place game to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships.

Outlook in the tournament: Marist should provide little challenge to the potent Cardinal offense. USC on Saturday will be the real challenge. Stanford has done a good job against them the three times they've met this season, but must do better limiting the Trojans' outside shot opportunities. The southern California teams are as quick as the Cardinal, so Stanford will have to settle for half-court offense while limiting USC's breakaway attempts. Finally, Stanford has struggled on 6-on-5s this season against USC and UCLA, and will need to convert at a high rate in what promises to be a very physical game.

1. University of California, Los Angeles (33-0, 15-0 MPSF)

First round opponent: Pomona-Pitzer, 5:00 PM

About the Bruins: UCLA has put together an amazing season this year, after winning national championships each of the last three years. They look to become the first team to go undefeated since 2005. Coach Adam Krikorian, in his tenth year, brings a veteran team led by junior Katie Rulon with 58 goals, senior Jillian Kraus with 54 goals, senior Courtney Mathewson with 50 goals, senior Brittany Rowe with 48 goals, and junior Tanya Gandy with 42 goals. Mathewson and Kraus shared MPSF Player of the Year honors, and junior goalkeeper Brittany Fullen sports a 4.77 GAA. The Bruins have shown chinks in their armor -- winning by just one goal three times, including an overtime victory over Stanford in the UC-Irvine Invitational.

How they got here: UCLA beat USC 8-7 in the MPSF Tournament finals to earn the automatic bid. They are undefeated and were the obvious choice for the top overall seed.

Outlook in the tournament: The Bruins will have the easiest trip to the championship game. After a warmup against Pomona-Pitzer on Friday, they should have little trouble with the winner of the San Diego-UC Davis game. They can thus put all of their energy into preparing for either Stanford or USC, which have each almost beat UCLA this season. In the end though, UCLA's combination of toughness, all-around offensive capabilities, and veteran leaders may be too much for any team to solve.

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