Water Polo Looks to Rebuild Championship Team

Despite being perhaps the smallest team in the nation, water polo has big goals

This past May, the Pomona-Pitzer women’s water polo team sealed a double overtime victory over Occidental College to take the SCIAC Championship, and with it the first-place rank in Division III and a trip to the NCAA DI Championship.

But that’s all last year’s business. This year, the Sagehens return seven girls from last year, including SCIAC Player of the Year Tamara Perea PZ ’11, Emma Huang PZ ’11, Lyssa “Isso” Shimamoto PO ’11, Annie Oxborough-Yankus PZ ’12, Perri Hopkins PZ ’12, Monica Loomba PZ ’13, and Sarah Tuggy PO ’13. The Sagehens added Erin Komplin PZ ’13 and Kerstin Henshall PZ ’14 to the squad and also convinced swimmers Julia Ticus PO ’13, Brenda Iglesias PO ’14, and Alex Lincoln PO ’14 to help out their numbers.

If you’ve been counting at home, that’s a total of 12 members. Water polo requires that 7 members be in the pool at one time, so most teams have at least 14 in order to scrimmage during practices. Thankfully, Assistant Coaches Jason Henshall PZ ’10, Kristin McKown, and Head Coach Alex Rodriguez often jump in to allow the team to scrimmage, but according to Rodriguez, this is the smallest team in the nation.

In order to uphold their second-place preseason ranking in Division III, the Sagehens will also have to be in the best shape of any team in the nation. Rodriguez and Assistant Coach Chris Lee have been working extensively on the team’s conditioning. As 32 minutes of game time translates into about 40-45 minutes of real time, some players will have to go without substitutes for that entire time, and playing that much water polo can be pretty taxing on the body.

This year’s first test came on Jan. 30 at the Redlands Mini-Tournament. Swimming was still in season back then, so the five swimmers on the water polo team could not devote the time necessary to be prepared for the tournament. Again, if you’re doing the math, that left the Sagehens with just seven dedicated players, the bare minimum necessary to field a team. Needless to say, this made for an interesting tournament.

Perea helped regain momentum many times through her deadly perimeter shots. The newer additions to our team fit in nicely with the rest of the squad. In her first two water polo games, Lincoln opened each quarter as our sprinter. Ticus’s ability to shoot and pass with both hands gives her the freedom to play pretty much anywhere. Henshall repeatedly drove into set, the most demanding position in water polo.

Understandably, the newer players had difficulty grasping some aspects of the game that came naturally to veterans. In the 6-14 loss to Redlands during the Mini-Tournament, for example, Rodriguez counted that five of the Bulldogs’ points came on “garbage goals,” which happen when a player misses a shot—either from a goalie block or by hitting one of the goal’s bars—but a teammate flicks the ball into the goal before the defenders or the goalie have time to react. Long-time players will automatically block out their opponent so that she will be unable to reach the ball in the event of a block or a bar-out. The best analogy is a basketball team that gives up a lot of offensive rebounds or tip-ins because it hasn’t learned how to box out.

After the Redlands tournament exposed some of these weaknesses, the Sagehen coaches have been working on swimming and conditioning for the returning water polo players, and the little specifics of the game for the converted swimmers. Rodriguez hopes that he can get everyone more or less “on the same page” before the team starts league games. Considering that the majority of the team has never played together, this has been a slow but incrementally successful process. The next chance for the almost completely remade Sagehens to demonstrate their hard work and willingness to collaborate will come this weekend.

Starting on Saturday, the Hens will have at least one and as many as four games each week until the end of the school year, depending on how well they do toward the end. Even though games start tomorrow, league play doesn’t actually begin until April, which will give the team plenty of time to touch up on swimming and tactics before they jump into the heart of the season.

Tomorrow, the team will travel north to Thousand Oaks, California, to attend another tournament hosted by Cal Lutheran. During the weekend, the Hens will face off against Cal State Bakersfield, Villanova, St. Francis, and Chapman, in that order. The bar has been set very high after last year’s success, but the Hens are hoping for another great season.