TEMPE – The No. 5 Arizona State University water polo team will be back in the pool this weekend as the team hosts its home opener on Saturday, March 1 against top-ranked USC. The game will get underway at 1 p.m. MT at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center in Tempe, Ariz. ASU is 3-5 in the MPSF opening game in Todd Clapper’s tenure as head coach and 4-4 in home openers.
SCOUTING THE OPPOSITION
The top-ranked Trojans fought through the longest NCAA title match on record last year, winning their fourth national championship in a game that stretched through overtime and all the way on to triple sudden-death. The 2014 Trojans return five starters from the last national championship team. NCAA Tournament MVP Flora Bolonyai -- an Olympian and a three-time All-American -- is the undeniable backbone of the team as the Trojans’ steadfast goalie. She returns as one of five All-Americans back in the water, joined by fellow senior All-Americans Kaleigh Gilchrist, Kelly Mendoza and Madeline Rosenthal. Junior Monica Vavic returns as another All-American as well as the Trojans’ top scorer and MPSF Player of the Year last season. The Trojans are currently 12-0 this season its best victory coming over UCLA in the UC Irvine Championship game in a tough 7-6 overtime victory. ASU and USC have squared off once this season at the UCSD Triton Invitational, a 10-4 decision in favor of the Trojans. ASU has never defeated a top-ranked program but the team’s largest upset on record came in 2008 when a 10th-ranked Sun Devil program took down the No. 2 Trojans.
FOLLOW THE ACTION
To follow the action on Saturday, be sure to follow along on both the Sun Devil Water Polo Facebook and Twitter Pages for live updates throughout the game. You can access the Sun Devil Twitter account by following @ASUWaterPolo or visit www.facebook.com/asuwaterpolo. There will also be a live blog available that will get underway shortly before the team’s opening whistle at 1 p.m. MT. That blog will be available by visiting the water polo page at www.thesundevils.com.
LAST TIME OUT
The then-No. 7 Arizona State University water polo team upset No. 5 UC Irvine, 9-8, in sudden death overtime to finish in fifth place at the prestigious UCI Invitational on Sunday in Irvine, Calif. The Sun Devils took down UC San Diego in the early game, 10-4, a month removed from falling to the Tritons in a tough 12-11 decision. The UCI Invite featured nine of the top 10 teams in the country and 14 ranked teams in the 16-team field, making it technically a more competitive tournament than even the NCAA Championship tourney that caps the season. The Sun Devils improved the 9-4 on the season with the victories moved up to No. 5 in the weekly CWPA Water Polo poll – an important distinction in the first year of the NCAA Tournament being played with two tournament positions.
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 prior to 2014, 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.
In head coach Todd Clapper’s career, he is 28-22 in all games decided by a single goal and 58-44 in all games decided by three goals or less. In the last three seasons, the Sun Devils are 18-9 in games decided by three goals or less and 10-4 in games decided by a goal. Last season, ASU was 5-0 in games decided by a goal, but that streak came to an end in a tough 12-11 loss to UC San Diego in the season opening UCSB Winter Invite tournament. ASU also dropped a 9-6 decision to UC Irvine in the final game of that weekend and thus two of those eight losses in game decided by three goals or less happened in one weekend. That being said, the Sun Devils got back to their winning ways in such games at the UC Irvine Invite in a dramatic one-goal victory over then No. 5 UC Irvine in a dramatic 9-8 decision.
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.
WHY NOT THE NEWCOMERS?
The Sun Devils welcomed an absolutely stacked class of freshmen to the roster this season and two of them have made their mark right out of the gates for the Sun Devils. Alkistis Benkou currently leads all Sun Devil scorers with 26 goals through 13 games this season and fellow fresman Izabella Chiappini is right behind her with 33 goals.The combo has combined for 20 multi-goal games with Benekou logging four or more goals in an impressive five games thus far. The ASU offense has relied heavily on the two youngsters as the duo has combined 72 of ASU’s 160 total goals this season (45.0 percent).
MAKIN’ IT LOOK IZA
Chiappini was the team’s savior against #5 UC Irvine at the UCI Invite, scoring a goal in the first overtime session before logging the game-winner with four seconds left in sudden death. Chiappini had eight points against #11 San Jose State in the UCI Invite opener (5 goals, 3 assists), moving into a tie for fourth on ASU’s all-time single-game points accounted for list and becoming the first freshman to ever accomplish the task. Chiappini leads all Sun Devils with 46 points scored this season (33 goals, 23 assists) and is already just three shy of cracking the ASU top-10 list for freshmen in the category.
Alkistis Benekou has been on a tear since the seaosn began and shows little sign of lowing down. The freshman out of Athen, Greece has a team leading 39 goals this season and is already tied for fourth on ASU’s all-time freshman goals scored list. Benekou has four or more goals in five games this season and has five or more in three games. That number is notable as she is already tied for fourth on ASU’s career list for games with five or more goals despite the fact she is just 13 games into her Sun Devil career. Benekou was named the MPSF Newcomer of the Week following her performance at the UCSD Triton Invitational earlier this season and currently finds herself ranked second in the contest in averaging 3.0 goals per game thus far in 2014.
KEEVE-IN’ IT REAL
E.B. Keeve put together perhaps the greatest single season in ASU history from the cage last season, 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. Keeve already has 142 saves in 13 games in 2014 and is just slightly above her pace last year at 12.62 saves per game, a number that currently leads the MPSF. Keeve was clutch at the UCI Invitational, logging double-digit saves in each of the team’s four games and capped the weekend off with a mopnstrous 23-save performance, setting a new ASU single-game school record to help the Sun Devils defeat No. 5 UC Irvine in a dramatic sudden victory decision.
PARDI IN THE USA
In 2014, Petra Pardi has been perhaps ASU’s top all-around player in the opening weeks. The junior has 22 goals (third on the team) and paces the squad with 21 assists - nearly twice as many as any other Sun Devil in the cateogory. Pardi set a school record against CSU Monterey Bay with six assists. Her current total is notable as she had just 22 assists period last season and just three as a freshman. Pardi is currently second on the team with 43 points on the season. Three times on the 2012 season, Petra Pardi notched five goals in a game - the only freshman to ever accomplish the feat and joining 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 in 2012 ranked 10th in ASU freshmen history. Pardi was 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. While she didn’t put up gaudy per-game goal tallies in 2013, she remained incredibly consistent, scoring multiple goals in 16 contests on the 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. 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 matched a career high with four goals in ASU’s victory over CSU Monterey Bay and is currently fourth on the team with 17 goals this season while also posting a team-leading 16 steals.
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. Gao, a two-time Olympian for China, had 43 goals last 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. Gao got off to a bit of a slow start statistically in 2014 but has picked it up of late, now fourth on the team with 17 goals this season while sitting third on the team with 13 assists.
IN THE RANKINGS
Following ASU’s strong fifth-place finish at the UCI Invitational, the Sun Devils moved up two positions to No. 5 nationally in the CWPA Poll, matching their highest regular season ranking to date this season.
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 in 2013 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. That streak of wins when not allowing 10 goals ended against UC Irvine in the 2014 opening tournament in a tough 9-6 loss at the UCSB Winter Invite. That being said, ASU is still 8-1 this season when not allowing an opponent to reach 10 goals. The Sun Devils also have a solid 94 steals on the season, averaging about 7.2 per game.
BUT OFFENSE DOESN’T HURT
ASU key to its recent success has just as much to do with offense as it does with defense. ASU averaged a solid 10.63 goals per game in 2013 and scored in double digits in 22 out of 33 games. The team’s 351 goals were not quite on pace to match the 2012 tally (a school record of 376 goals). ASU opened 2014 with some offensive fireworks, including a 23-2 victory over CSU Monterey Bay. The 23 goals were the second most in school history while the 21-goal victory set a new school record for the Sun Devil program. ASU currently is averaging 12.31 goals per game and has 160 total goals this season and has reached double digits in all but three games. ASU scored 10 goals against Stanford at the UCI Invitational in a tough 11-10 loss but it was notable as it was the first time the Sun Devils had reached double-digits against the Cardinal since 2009.
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.
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.