Back In Camp: Women's Water Polo
BERKELEY – There's no question that the return of a fall offseason training program has been a boost to NCAA women's water polo programs all over the country.
But at Cal, where head coach Coralie Simmons is trying to blend veterans with Olympic experience into a program that figures to also rely heavily on its youth, the previous three months loom especially large.
"Having a fall has been instrumental with how important the offseason is and how much we want to continue to improve early in the season, as well," Simmons said Monday evening after the first official practice for the 2022 season. "The time to be able to work out the kinks and get to know each other was huge for us. The first practice this year looks entirely different than last year. You don't have to rush into things, and you feel like you have your footing and know what to expect."
The Bears welcome back 2020 Olympian Emma Wright (Canada) and 2020 All-MPSF performer Ruby Swadling to a team that had two MPSF All-Newcomer selections last season as well as a couple of other freshmen who played significant roles in leading Cal to a 12-7 record and No. 6 final national ranking. Fellow 2020 Olympian Kitty Lynn Joustra (The Netherlands), who was able to play for the Bears in 2021 before heading off to Tokyo, also returns along with Greek National Team member Elli Protopapas.
Overall, the Bears feature several upperclassmen who have made major contributions to the program along with a similar handful of more inexperienced players that should make a difference in 2022.
"Getting to know your teammates is so important, and being able to have the fall where you are able to get comfortable and form relationships with your teammates is so important," said graduate student Georgia Gilmore, who decided to return for a fifth season after having last year cut short to just four games due to injury. "The fact we've been able to do that this year – you can already tell the difference. We are already in so much of a better place this year than we were last year, just purely because we got to know each other."
The final third of the 2020 season and all ensuing fall activity was canceled due to COVID-19, so the Bears only had a couple of weeks to prepare for the 2021 campaign. Typically, the focus in the fall is on fundamentals and team chemistry, but Cal had to cram all of that into the preseason last January, not to mention preparing to compete in the toughest conference in the country.
Cal will undoubtedly begin this season more prepared, and features arguably the deepest team in Simmons' six years in Berkeley. Wright and Joustra are both three-time All-Americans, Protopapas and Swadling were each MPSF All-Newcomer selections and veterans such as Gilmore, Cecily Turner, Shea Salvino, Grace Raisin and Carson Broad have each been significant contributors during their time with the Bears.
Reagan Whitney and Maryn Dempsey were 2021 MPSF All-Newcomer picks last season while Mallory Reynoso and Maddie DeMattia were also major contributors as freshman (each were named MPSF Newcomer of the Week). Cal's group of newcomers includes six student-athletes who have national team experience.
"I don't think we've had a squad in my time here where we can sub 6-for-6," Simmons said. "That's really exciting for us and encouraging for not only this year but also where the program is going. That depth also means there are a lot of people on the bench ready to go and hungry. If they are hungry, we are going to do some big things and really challenge teams that we really haven't done in the past. That's exciting."
While the Bears are excited to have their Olympians and other top players back for a full season, they recognize the other top teams are in the same position. Stanford, USC and UCLA also have Olympians re-joining their squads for 2022.
"It's going to be hard. There will be no shortage of difficulty when it comes to the top teams. There never is," Gilmore said. "We get great players back. So do they. But I really believe in this team. I think that everybody believes in this team. That's a big difference-maker on teams that I've been on over the years. You can tell when people really believe and when they don't, and I think we all really believe and we really care."
The Bears open the 2022 season at home on Jan. 15 against Cal State East Bay.