Women’s Water Polo Upsets Athenas to Keep NCAA Hopes Alive

In a season full of ups and downs, it looks like the Pomona-Pitzer women’s water polo team (15-16, 6-2 SCIAC) has finally hit its stride, and the timing couldn’t be better for the Sagehens. With the chance to qualify for the NCAA Championship potentially on the line, the Hens defeated Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (13-14, 7-1 SCIAC) 12-7 on Saturday in what was arguably the season’s most important game to date. Mahalia Prater-Fahey PO ’15 and Sarah Westcott PO ’15 led the way with three goals each, while Katy Schaefer PZ ’16 and Alyssa Woodward PZ ’15 each contributed two. While the Sagehens had a good day on offense, perhaps the most notable highlights came at the other end of the pool, where Sarah Tuggy PO ’13 had ten saves in her final home game as a Sagehen.

“Somehow I think knowing everything that was at stake for this game actually made me less nervous and more excited,” Tuggy said. “It’s already exciting playing your last home game against your closest rival and knowing you’ll get the biggest crowd all year, and adding the NCAA tournament into the mix made the game all the more fun for me.”

Neither team was able to gain an edge in the first half as they headed into halftime knotted at five. In the third quarter, the two rivals picked up where they left off as P-P scored with 5:40 remaining, then CMS answered with a goal of its own seconds later.

The rest of the half told a different story, however, as the Sagehens scored six unanswered goals to pull away. After a goal from Chrissy Alving-Trinh PO ’15, Schaefer scored back-to-back goals to give the Sagehens a 9-6 lead. Schaefer’s second goal was one of the game’s highlights. With time expiring in the third quarter, the freshman took a last second shot from mid-pool that found its way past the Athenas’ goalie.

“I remember seeing the goalie in the middle of the cage,” Schaefer said. “I could tell that she wasn’t expecting much of a shot. I saw the upper left corner of the goal and then I saw the goalie fishing the ball out of the back of the cage.”

After Alving-Trinh and Schaefer built a lead, the Sagehens slammed the door down the stretch. The fourth quarter belonged to Prater-Fahey as the sophomore netted three consecutive goals to give the Sagehens a 12-6 lead. The Athenas scored once more, but it was too little, too late. The win marked the high point of what has turned into a late-season momentum swing for the Sagehens, who have struggled to stay consistent all year.

Inconsistency aside, the team seems to have found its stride as they have won five of their past six games, four of which were league matchups. The Sagehens are playing with a sense of urgency that Prater-Fahey thinks is directly connected with Tuggy.

“There is a sense of obligation to win for Tuggy,” Prater-Fahey said. “She gives everything she has each game, and we want to make her last year special. At the beginning of the season we joked that we would yell ‘for Harvard’ as motivation during workouts. To make it to Harvard for NCAAs so that Tuggy can play her final games [there] would just be amazing.”

Tuggy said she thinks that the momentum swing came from a change in attitude as well as from a better sense of identity from player to player.

“I think we struggled a bit at the beginning, because we played as if we were afraid to lose or we thought we’d get an easy win,” she said. “Everyone is starting to see what they do best and how they can help bring out someone else’s strengths on both offense and defense.”

With Saturday’s win, hopes for reaching the NCAA Championship are still alive. If the Sagehens had lost, the Athenas would have all but sealed their path to the tournament, but Saturday’s game leveled the playing field for the tournament at Caltech this weekend. Based on the current standings, it appears that the winner of the SCIAC tournament will win the NCAA bid. No team has succeeded in separating itself from the pack so far this year, so the league title is more or less up for grabs.

Tuggy said she thinks that her team’s momentum is no reason to get too confident, but that a patient approach will serve them well.

“We definitely can’t get complacent,” Tuggy said. “Just because we beat the first-ranked team, we can’t go in with the attitude that we should win the tournament. I think if we focus on one game at a time and play as a team with the same energy as we did against Whittier and CMS, we’ll get the result we want.”

Schaefer shared a similar sentiment, saying that the team has to make sure that it approaches the tournament with the right mindset and builds off its momentum, but if they take all the right steps, “there isn’t a team in the league that can beat us.”

With her career as a Sagehen winding down, Tuggy still has a goal to chase, and it’s not one that she is going to give up on anytime soon.

“One of our team goals at the beginning of this season was to win a game at NCAAs, and I definitely hold on to that goal,” Tuggy said. “I want everyone to be able to look back on this season, see how much we’ve grown and everything we’ve persevered through, and see what a gift it is to play water polo and have fun doing it. I’m excited and grateful for the opportunity to play my best this weekend and really shoot for that NCAA tournament.”

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