The Pomona-Pitzer women’s water polo team is headed to the NCAA Championships for the fifth time in seven years after claiming the SCIAC title this past weekend. The Sagehens never trailed in the tournament as they defeated Chapman University, Occidental College, and University of Redlands to take their place atop a league that has lacked a clear leader for the majority of the season. With their emergence as the top team in the SCIAC, the Sagehens secured a ticket to the NCAA Championships in Cambridge, Mass., where the Sagehens will face the top programs in the country. The Hens finished 18-16 overall and 9-2 in SCIAC play.
The Sagehens wasted no time in the opening round last Friday as they overwhelmed Chapman 18-7. Although Chapman’s offense had plenty of good looks, Sagehen goalie Sarah Tuggy PO ’13 never let the Panthers build momentum. The senior recorded 16 saves on the day. Tuggy’s performance in the cage proved to be the catalyst for the Sagehens, as it has for most of the season. When Tuggy makes plays, the rest of the team usually follows suit.
“Sarah Tuggy is the backbone of our team,” Alyssa Woodward PZ ’15 said. “Every game we had when she was on fire and blocking everything coming at her, I knew [that would] be a great game. I lost count of how many times she saved us on defense.”
Woodward and Mahalia Prater-Fahey PO ’15 led the way on offense for the Sagehens, each contributing five goals.
With Friday’s win, the Sagehens moved on to the semifinals where they met Occidental, a tougher opponent than Chapman. The Tigers were within one in the opening minutes of the second half, but the homestretch belonged to the Sagehens as their offense set a scoring pace that the Tigers could not match. P-P went on to win 10-6, thanks to four goals from first-year standout Katy Schaefer PZ ’16.
The championship game had the Sagehens matched up against Redlands, this year’s nemesis. On April 3, Redlands edged P-P 7-6 at Haldeman Pool in what marked one of the lowest points of the season for the Sagehens.
Approaching Sunday’s rematch, Tuggy felt some nerves but also had a new sense of confidence.
“I knew that we would have to play as a team and give it our all if we were to beat Redlands,” Tuggy said. “Sure, there was a little bit of doubt, but I wasn’t afraid to lose. I knew that everyone was going to give their best, and that’s all we can control.”
The Sagehens jumped out to an early 4-1 lead and took a 7-4 lead into the half. Redlands was far from finished, however, as they matched the Sagehens goal for goal and eventually broke the even pace, making the score 9-7 in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. The rally ended there, however, as the Sagehen defense slammed the door, shutting out the Bulldogs in the final seven minutes. Mahalia Prater-Fahey scored with 3:04 remaining to seal the victory, and for the second straight year, and the Sagehens emerged as the top team in the SCIAC.
For Tuggy, the lone senior on the roster, Sunday’s win and the opportunity to compete at the NCAA championships are a strong ending to her time on the team.
“I cannot imagine a better way to close out my senior year and my water polo career in general,” Tuggy said. “My water polo career has been such a fulfilling journey thus far, and a SCIAC championship and NCAA appearance are more than I could have possibly asked for.”
While the SCIAC championship seemed like a fitting ending to the Sagehens’ season, they still have a daunting challenge ahead. In two weeks they will travel to Harvard University, where they will open up against top-seed University of Southern California in the first round. Historically, the Sagehens have struggled against the tough Division I competition at the NCAA Championships, carrying a 2-10 record into this year’s tournament. Tuggy acknowledges the mismatches that come with facing top-tier teams, but her focus isn’t on the opponents.
“We can’t control other teams, but we can control ourselves,” Tuggy said.
According to Tuggy, the Sagehens have one last goal for the 2013 season: to earn one win at the NCAA Championships. With the momentum that the Sagehens have built down the stretch this season, that goal may not be too far-fetched.