ASU Water Polo Readies for First-Ever NCAA Tourney Appearance
LOS ANGELES – The No. 4 Arizona State University water polo team will make its first appearance at the NCAA Tournament this weekend in Los Angeles, Calif., beginning Friday, May 9 against No. 3 California in the opening round. The game is scheduled to get underway at 5:15 p.m. PT and will be streamed via the NCAA.com website. A victory in that game would advance the team to the semifinals to take on the winner of Stanford vs. Indiana while the loser will move down to the consolation bracket to take on the loser of the Stanford/Indiana game.
SCOUTING THE OPPOSITION
The battle between the Sun Devils and Golden Bears should be an epic one, if recent history is any indication. 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 two teams have played twice this season, with ASU holding Cal to a season low five goals in a 6-5 victory in the regular season finale in Tempe while the Golden Bears bounced back in the third-place game of the MPSF Championships with an 8-7 win in sudden victory. Cal is paced by an exceptional group of youngsters led by 2014 MPSF scoring champion Dora Antal, who averages 2.96 goals per game this season. Fellow freshman Roser Tarrago was eighth in the conference at 1.96 goals per game. The Sun Devils do have an opportunity to take advantage of Cal goalkeeper Madeline Trabucco, who was second to last in the conference in allowing 8.13 goals per game.
FOLLOW THE ACTION
All games this weekend are schedule to be streamed live online for free via the NCAA.com website and can be accessed at www.ncaa.com/liveschedule. Additionally, the Arizona State media relations department will operate a live stream throughout the weekend that can be accessed through www.TheSunDevils.com and will have an additional link available for live statistics there as well. Fans are also encouraged to follow the team via social media and can follow @ASUWaterPolo on Twitter or Like the Sun Devil water polo Facebook page at www.facebook.com/asuwaterpolo.
LAST TIME OUT - MPSF Championships
The No. 4 Arizona State University water polo team took fourth place at the MPSF Conference Championships in Los Angeles. The Sun Devils opened the weekend with one of the biggest wins in program history, upsetting the defending NCAA Champions and host No. 3 USC, 10-9, in a sudden victory decision to give ASU just its second victory over the Trojans in program history and a win that provided a definite boost to the Sun Devils’ NCAA Championship resume. The squad would fall to No. 2 UCLA in the semifinals, 10-7, before dropping a 7-6 sudden victory decision to No. 5 Cal in the final game of the weekend. The fourth-place finish matched the best finish in program history, equalling last year’s finish.
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 30-23 in all games decided by a single goal and 60-46 in all games decided by three goals or less. In the last three seasons, the Sun Devils are 20-11 in games decided by three goals or less and 12-5 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, ASU has picked up dramatic one-goal wins over top-five foes in USC, Cal and UC Irvine this season, three pivotal wins that helped propel the Sun Devils into the NCAA Tournament.
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 Benekou currently leads all Sun Devil scorers with 52 goals this season and fellow freshman Izabella Chiappini is right behind her with 47 goals.The combo has combined for 25 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 have combined for 99 of ASU’s 276 total goals this season (36 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. She did it again in the opening round of the MPSF Championships against No. 3 USC, scoring in sudden victory for the goal that sealed the deal for ASU’s first-ever ticket to the NCAA Tournament. 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 is tied for the team lead in total points this season (47 goals, 24 assists) and is already second in ASU freshman history in the category, ranking only behind Olympian Rowie Webster’s 82 points as a freshman in 2006. Chiappini was named to MPSF All-Newcomer team this season as well.
Alkistis Benekou has been on a tear since the season began and shows little sign of slowing down. The freshman out of Athens, Greece has a team leading 52 goals this season and is already second on ASU’s all-time freshman goals scored list. Benekou has four or more goals in six games this season and has five or more in three games. That number is notable as she is already tied 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 finished the season fifth in the conference in averaging 2.08 goals per game. Benekou earned All-MPSF honorable mention accolades and was named to the All-Newcomer team as well.
KEEVE-IN’ IT REAL
While E.B. Keeve had quite the impressive season last year, she looked to do one better this season. The sophomore goalie currently with 278 saves in 25 games in 2014 and is just slightly above her pace last year at 12.64 saves per game, a number that currently leads the NCAA and was tops in the MPSF by a large margin. Keeve - an All-MPSF second-team selection - was the hero of the USC game, logging 17 saves, several in overtime, while logging the game-winning assist in sudden victory. Keeve was clutch at the UCI Invitational, logging monstrous 23-save performance in an upset over UC Irvine, setting a new ASU single-game school record to help the Sun Devils defeat No. 5 UC Irvine in a dramatic sudden victory decision. Keeve showed her stuff again in ASU’s 6-5 upset over No. 4 Cal where she had 17 saves - a career regulation high - in an effort that earned her MPSF Player of the Week honors. Last season, 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.
PARDI IN THE USA
Petra Pardi has been one of ASU’s most consistent contributors all season. The junior has 39 goals (third on the team) and paces the squad with 32 assists. 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. Her three goals in ASU’s 6-5 upset over Cal helped set the tone for the game. Pardi currently leads the team with 71 points on the season. Three times in 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 30 goals this season while also posting a career-leading 21 steals.
GAO GETTING IT DONE
With two Olympiads and two years of Division I water polo under her belt, Ao Gao was 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 38 goals this season while leading the team with 32 assists. Gao saved her best for the MPSF Championship, scoring a career-high four goals in ASU’s 10-9 sudden victory over No. 3 USC. She was named to the MPSF All-Tournament team for the second consecutive season for the performance and earned All-MPSF second team accolades as well.
IN THE RANKINGS
The Sun Devils enter the weekend as tied for fourth in the nation in the CWPA Coaches Poll following the team’s fourth-place effortat the MPSF Championship. ASU has remained in the top five in the rankings in allbut five weeks 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 14-3 this season when not allowing an opponent to reach 10 goals. The Sun Devils also have a solid 159 steals on the season, averaging about 6.4 per game.
BUT OFFENSE DOESN’T HURT
ASU’s 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 is currently averaging 11.04 goals per game and has 276 total goals this season and has reached double digits in all but seven 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 then-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.