TEMPE - The No. 5 Arizona State University water polo team opens the 2014 season this weekend as the squad will take part in five matches in three days as part of the UC Santa Barbara Winter Invite in Santa Barbara, Calif., beginning on Friday, Jan. 24. ASU will open the season against Azusa Pacific at 10:10 a.m. PT on Friday and will take on Cal State Monterey Bay at 4 p.m. PT The competition level takes a step up on Saturday as the Sun Devils take on the host UCSB, currently ranked No. 17 nationally at 9 a.m. followed by an afternoon tilt against No. 14 UC San Diego. ASU will finish out the weekend with its toughest matchup on Sunday against the No. 6 UC Irvine Anteaters at 12:40 a.m. PT.
SCOUTING THE OPPOSITION
Most people will look at the weekends schedule and instrictively point to Sunday’s contest as the most important match of the season, but the two games against ranked teams on Saturday can’t be overlooked. UCSB is playing in their home pool and played the Sun Devils tough last season in a 10-7 ASU victory in this same competition. ASU handled UC San Diego, 10-4, in the lone matchup between the two teams but the Tritons were still advanced to the NCAA Tournament on the season following an unblemished conferene campaign and is an experienced squad with four seniors and three juniors on the roster. The Anteaters have consistently provided ASU with a test in the past couple deacde with the Sun Devils possessing a six-game winning streak over UCI entering the weekend. However, three of the last four games have been decided by just a goal and 14 of the last 19 contests between the two squads in the last decade have been decided by two goals or less in one of the more hotly contested rivalries in water polo.
LAST TIME OUT - 2013 SEASON REVIEW
The No. 3 Arizona State University water polo team fell in the third-place game of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament to end the 2013 season, dropping a 10-7 decision to No. 4 UCLA in Berkeley, Calif. The fourth-place finish was the best in ASU history at the competition. The Sun Devils finished the season with an impressive 26-7 record, setting a new school record for single-season wins. The Sun Devils defeated UCLA in the regular season for the first win over the Bruins in program history while also knocking off Cal in Berkeley for the first road victory against the Bears in program history as well. Alicia Brightwell and Ao Gao each earned second-team All-America honors while Shannon Haas was a third-team selection for the second consecutive season. Redshirt freshman E.B. Keeve earned an honorable mention nod. The four were also named to the All-MPSF Team to round out the season.
FOLLOW THE ACTION
Stay tuned to ASU Water Polo on Twitter (@ASUWaterPolo) and Facebook (Arizona State Water Polo) for updates through out the weekend. Complete recaps of each day will be available at TheSunDevils.com following each day of action.
The Sun Devils have established themselves as one of the elite teams in the country in the last couple years. In the last two seasons, the Sun Devils have compiled a 51-13 record under head coach Todd Clapper. In that time, the team has posted seven All-America honors while earning the first victory over UCLA in program history as well as beating Cal on the road for the first time ever as well. The Sun Devils posted a program-best fourth-place finish in the MPSF Championships and CWPA Final Coaches Poll last season (peaking at a program best No. 3 in the 2013 regular seasons) and have set school records in wins in each of the last two seasons as well.
The Sun Devils found themselves in a handful of games that came down to the wire last season, but always managed to find a way to come out on top. ASU was 5-0 in 2013 in games decided by a goal, following the exciting victory over #5 Cal on the Pac-12 Networks. ASU came out on top twice over Cal by a goal last year while also knocking off UCLA by a goal for the first time in program history earlier on the season. ASU also had two tight games against UC Irvine, winning each by a goal - including a sudden victory game earlier in the season. In head coach Todd Clapper’s career, he is 27-20 in all games decided by a goal and 57-41 in all games decided by three goals or less. In the last two seasons, the Sun Devils are 17-6 in games decided by three goals or less and 9-2 in games decided by a goal.
WHO WILL STEP INTO THE SPOTLIGHT?
The ASU program lost two of the greatest Sun Devils to grace the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center to graduation following the 2013 season in Shannon Haas and Alicia Brightwell. The two sit second and third on ASU’s all-time scoring list, respectively, and leave a hole to be filled as far as scoring is concerned in 2014. The two combined for 156 of ASU’s 351 goals last season (44.4 percent), a figure that isn’t hard to overlook. Among the front runners to come in and make an immediate dent in that hole this season is junior Petra Pardi. Among ASU’s most improved players in 2013, Pardi had 45 goals on the season to finish third on the team in the category. She had 16 multi-goal games on the season, not far behind Brightwell (21) and Haas (20) for the team lead. Ao Gao had 43 goals on the season and the two-time Olympian is among ASU’s most polished all-around players but her strength is in her defense, where she was named an All-American last season. Freshman Izabella Chiappini and Alkistis Benekou were very capable goal-scorers in international competition last summer for Brazil and Greece, respectively, and could come in and provide an immediate spark. Returners Katie Sverchek and Anna Kertes have also shown ample goal-scoring capability in their careers as well and will be worth keeping an eye on this season.
KEEVE-IN’ IT REAL
Relying on a redshirt freshman at goalkeeper might make even the most stone-faced of coaches flinch a little. But if there’s one thing E.B. Keeve didn’t do in her first season minding the net for the Sun Devils, it was flinch. Keeve put together perhaps the greatest single season in ASU history from the cage, which is quite the accomplishment considering some of the numbers former great Caylinn Wallace put up in her career. Keeve set the all-time single season saves record with 377, knocking off Wallace’s previous best of 346 in 2008. Her 63 percent save percentage on the year is second all-time among goalies with at least 50 saves and first among goalies with at least 200 saves. She also obliterated the school record for saves per game with 12.46 on the season, a mark that paced that MPSF and was nearly two more saves per game better than Wallace’s previous record of 10.52. With another year under her belt, all eyes will be on Keeve as she enters her redshirt sophomore season with the potential to become one of the elite goalkeepers in the NCAA.
GAO GETTING IT DONE
With two Olympiads and two years of Division I water polo under her belt, Ao Gao could be primed to establish herself as one of the top players in the country as a junior. The Beijing native Gao was almost a silent assassin this season for the Sun Devils last season as she quietly put up one of the most well-rounded seasons in ASU history from the two-meter defender position. Gao, a two-time Olympian for China, had 43 goals on the year while leading the team with 43 assists. The latter was the third-highest single season tally in school history while her 86 total points are eighth. A lock-down defender, Gao limited numerous opponents on the season while forcing 65 steals on the year for the sixth-highest single season total in school history.
PARDI IN THE USA
Three times on the 2012 season, Petra Pardi notched five goals in a game - the only freshman to ever accomplish the feat. In addition, only ASU great Lynlee Smith had ever scored five or more goals in a game on three separate occasions in one season before Pardi. Pardi’s 30 goals last year ranked 10th in ASU freshmen history. Pardi was been solid in the 2013 season, as her 45 goals finished third on the team behind Brightwell and Haas. Pardi had 67 points on the season, good for fourth on the Sun Devil roster. Pardi was the catalyst for ASU’s huge come-from-behind victory to upset UCLA, scoring three goals in the second half - including the one that put ASU out in front to stay - as the team knocked off the Bruins for the first time in school history. Pardi was named the MPSF Athlete of the Week for the performance. Pardi also earned the game-winner for the Sun Devils in the victory at #5 Cal as she continued to show her clutch ability in big games. While she didn’t put up gaudy per-game goal tallies in 2013, she remained incredibly consistent, scoring multiple goals in 16 contests this season.
Anna Kertes established herself as one of the top freshman in the nation with her play in 2012. Kertes’ 47 goals were the second-most among freshmen in the conference and tied the second-highest tally in ASU history among freshmen. Her four first-half goals against No. 2 Stanford that season kept the Sun Devils in that game and the Hungarian notched two or more goals in 11 games last season. Kertes would eventually earn a spot on the MPSF All-Newcomer Team to conclude the season. Kertes showed a new facet to her game as a sophomore as she tallied 28 assists on the season, far surpassing her total season tally of 12 from her freshman season. Kertes helped lead the comeback again UCLA, scoring the eventual game-winner as well as a late goal in the first half to keep ASU in the game. Kertes stepped up in the absence of Alicia Brightwell against #19 Hartwick, as well, scoring four goals alongside four assists in her best game as a Sun Devil to date.
IN THE RANKINGS
In the first official week of the CWPA Coaches Poll, the Sun Devils find themselves ranked fifth overall. The squad opened the season tied for No. 4 but dropped following a week of not playing while most teams opened the season. ASU peaked at No. 3 last season, its highest ranking in school history and finished the season ranked fourth overall.
DEFENSE WINS BALL GAMES
Defense will win you games in just about any sport and water polo is no exception. In 2013, ASU was 26-0 on the year when not allowing the opposition to score in double digits and outscored the opposition 351-240 on the year. Additionally, the team had 378 steals on the season (compared to 250 turnovers the prior season), a pattern the team will look to continue in 2014.
BUT OFFENSE DOESN’T HURT
For the biggest difference between last year’s team and the previous ASU squad, one need look no further than the goals scored category. Through the entire 2011 season (MPSF Championships included), the Sun Devils notched just 247 goals. In 2012, ASU found the back of the net 376 times - easily good enough for the school record in the category. ASU averaged a solid 10.63 goals per game in 2013 and scored in double digits in 22 out of 33 games. The teams 351 goals were not quite on pace to match the 2012 tally, but will still go down as the second-highest goals scored amount in program history.
NEW FACES AND BIG EXPECTATIONS
The Sun Devils welcomed an elite signing class to the ranks this season with all four freshmen this season capable of making an impact with the team. Brazilian superstar Izabella Chiappini joined the team in January after cleaning up in Brazil over the past season, representing the internation team at the FINAL World Championships and Junior World Championships. She was named the Brazilian Player of the Year. Alkistis Benekou contributed with three goals for her Greece team as the Junior World Championships. The team was able to make it to medal round and earned a bronze medal following a 7-6 victory over Russia. Stephanie Contreras was the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Tribune Girls Water Polo Player of the Year, leaving Los Altos HS as the most-prolic scorer in the CIF-Southern Section. She scored 141 goals last to finish with a CIF-SS record of 639 goals for a career en route to leading the Conquerors to the division semifinals for the second time in four seasons. Mia Rycraw earned her second first-team All-Area selection in the same area as she helped Walnut HS to a share of second-place in the Hacienda League and a 17-7 record. She was first team All-CIF-Southern Section Division 4 and first team All-Sierra League.