Sun Devil Water Polo Emerges As A Top Contender
Since the inception of the NCAA Women's Water Polo Championships in 2001, only three teams have ever been crowned as champions: Stanford, the University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles.
While taking on those juggernauts seems like enough of an uphill battle, Arizona State University shares the same division with all three teams: The Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF).
The 2020 season looked optimistic for the Sun Devils after jumping out to a 12-5 start, however, the remainder of the season was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The news of the NCAA's decision was a shock and disappointment to all.
"It was emotionally very tough," said ASU head coach Todd Clapper. "You're together every day and then it went from there to nothing."
However, coach Clapper and his team focused on the bright side of the situation and found positive takeaways.
"We had a lot of injuries in 2020 that the team was trying to work through," said Clapper. "The silver lining was that a lot of people got a chance to actually rest."
With the team no longer meeting in person, coach Clapper had to get creative with team communication and practice. The team started weekly Zoom meetings in June where coach Clapper would hold lectures, share videos and break down games for the student-athletes to watch.
"It allowed us to think of training the team in the offseason a little differently," said Clapper. "We look at how we've been able to learn from our mistakes."
Though the offseason training was significantly different from previous years, the Sun Devils found that coach Clapper's new methods were paying dividends.
"It forced us to find other ways to kind of keep everybody together," said Clapper. "I think that coming out of the summer, we were probably more on the same page than we normally are."
With 19 games in the 2021 season thus far, the Sun Devils seem to be picking up right where they left off last season with a 12-7 record, including upset wins over Stanford and UCLA, and coach Clapper is thrilled with the team's improvements.
"I think we're doing well," said Clapper. "Typically, in the beginning of the year we're playing against SC or Stanford, we really have a difficult time in certain elements of the game hanging with them, and that hasn't been an issue this year."
Coach Clapper is also impressed with how well the team has bounced back and learned from losses. He spoke about how USC "beat them bad" in their first matchup, but the Sun Devils came back the next day and "played them tight."
"I feel like we're farther along than where we were last year," said Clapper.
Though the 2021 season is off to a great start, the Sun Devils are still playing in the NCAA's toughest conference, but they wouldn't have it any other way.
"I think the motivation probably comes from seeing how close we are to being one of the top couple of teams here at the end of the season," said Clapper. "The conference is really tough. It's a great place to be if you're wanting to play against the best."
Now in his 16th season, coach Clapper has an overall record of 271-164, despite playing in such a competitive conference. Humbly, he believes that most of that success is attributed to the team's preparation and recruiting.
Coach Clapper spoke about the emphasis that the team puts on trying to find the right kind of person for the program, both in talent and character, and how that process has allowed the team to be more consistent on a year-to-year basis.
He also believes that the MPSF demands a very specific type of preparation.
"We just try to give our team and our athletes the best chance to win every time. Not only in our physical preparation and what we do in practice, but also trying to find the best solutions tactically for our opponents," said Clapper. "We have to be top four because the top five are in our conference."
After a recent upset over No. 2 UCLA, the Sun Devils are currently ranked third in the division behind USC and UCLA and one spot ahead of Stanford.
The success of the Sun Devils isn't the only exciting development of the 2021 season. The MPSF has announced that ASU will host the conference championship tournament this season.
Though the championship was initially scheduled to be played at San Jose State University, the MPSF changed locations to ASU due to the pandemic.
"It's a great opportunity for us," said Clapper. "Most teams are stronger at home."
The MPSF Water Polo Championship will be held from Friday, April 30 to Sunday, May 2 at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center in Tempe. Tickets will be on sale for the public soon and the games will also be streamed on MPSF TV with a subscription.
Stephen McCarthy is a senior in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism who will graduate in the spring of 2021. Originally from Scottsdale, Arizona, he has worked in ASU's PR Lab and has interned at Maag Commplus, a public relations agency, in his Sun Devil undergraduate career