TEMPE – The Arizona State University water polo program will advance to the NCAA Championships for the first time in program history, as announced by the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Committee on Monday evening.
The Sun Devils received the No. 5 seed in the 10-team tournament and will take on fourth-seeded Cal in the first round of the 2014 competition, which will be held May 9-11 at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center in Los Angeles. Southern California will serve as the host institution. The 2014 championship single-elimination tournament (12 games), with a losers’ bracket to determine places three through eight.
Cal and Arizona State have squared off twice this season with ASU taking a one-goal victory in the final game of the regular season over the Golden Bears before Cal knocked off ASU with another one goal victory in the third-place game of the MPSF Championships in the sudden victory session.
Each of the last five games between ASU and Cal has been decided by a single goal, with the Sun Devils coming on top three times to Cal’s two. The winner of the opening round contest will go on take on the winner of the game between top-ranked Stanford and the play-in winner of the Indiana vs. Wagner contest.
The Sun Devil water polo program had its inaugural season in 2001-2002 and, despite competing in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation – the conference responsible for every single NCAA Champion in the tournament’s existence since 2001 – has established itself as one of the premier programs in the nation under the helm of head coach Todd Clapper.
The Sun Devils picked up a program-best fourth-place finish in the final national poll last season, but missed out on the NCAA Tournament due to there only being two at-large bids in 2013 and those two bids went to the MPSF programs that finished second and third nationally.
The 2014 NCAA Water Polo Championship field expanded from eight to 10 teams, however, opening up two more at-large bids which the Sun Devils promptly took advantage of.
ASU finished the season 15-10 and picked up victories over top-five teams in No. 4 California to close out the regular season and No. 3 USC in the first round of the MPSF Championships, defeating the Trojans for just the second time in school history and bringing ASU’s total to seven victories over teams ranked in the top-five nationally in the last three seasons – compared to just eight such victories in 10 previous seasons to that.
The Sun Devils have been powered through this year by a combination of exceptional young talent and solid veteran leadership. Sophomore goalkeeper E.B. Keeve has been phenomenal, averaging a national-leading 12.64 saves per game while the team’s scoring has been paced by two freshmen in Alkistis Benekou (52 goals) and Izabella Chiappini (47 goals).
Behind the youth of the squad is a slew of juniors who have done their part in stepping up when the takes have been highest. Four times this season, two-time Olympian Ao Gao has scored three or more goals in a game and three of those have come against a team ranked in the top-three nationally.
Fellow junior Petra Pardi is third on the team with 39 goals this season, four of which came in ASU’s first victory over Cal, while fellow juniors Annie Kertes and Liz Kreek have provided plenty of depth alongside sophomores Abbey Kerth, Kate Enoka, Daisy Carter and Katie Sverchek.
Todd Clapper has taken the team to new heights in the last three seasons, compiling a 66-23 overall record. 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 scored a program-best fourth-place finish in the MPSF Championships in each of the last two seasons and finished at No. 4 in the Final CWPA Coaches Poll last season (peaking at a program best No. 3 in the 2013 regular season) while setting school records for wins in both 2012 and 2013.