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2022 USC Women’s Water Polo Outlook: Trojans Aim To Defend NCAA Championship

Jan 28, 2022

As he enters his third season at the helm of the USC women's water polo program, head coach Marko Pintaric likes what he sees. Again. These 2022 Trojans are primed to defend the NCAA title they won last year, thanks to an influx of world-class talent along with a reliable force of returning champions.

"I'm excited to be working with this new group and trying to reach our goal of winning another national championship," Pintaric said.

For the first time since 2009, USC will have two Trojans in the water coming off of Olympic experiences in 2020 Olympians Paige Hauschild (USA) and Tilly Kearns (Australia). Extra International influx comes from Spain's Alejandra Aznar, who also took time away from USC to train with her national team for the Games, although she did not compete in Tokyo. That trio last capped up together as Trojans in 2019 — Hauschild's sophomore season and the first for Kearns and Aznar. That year, they scored a combined 119 goals — almost 30 percent of USC's total output in a season that saw the Trojans win the MPSF Tournament and come  up just short of the 2019 NCAA title. 

Altogether, they are a triple threat all their own. Hauschild wields a ferocious outside shot that combines with immense strength as a defender. Kearns is a proven force at the two-meter spot. And Aznar boasts a deft left hand to give USC's balance a depth charge. But offensive firepower only scratches the surface of their overall value to the Trojans this season. 

"Paige, Tilly and Ale are a super important part of our team," Pintaric said. "They were gone for two years, but the time with us before Olympic training allowed them to assimilate really quickly back into our training. Paige has established herself as a team leader inside and outside the water. And you can see the maturity and growth in Tilly and Ale not only as water polo players but as human beings."

While that group was growing and gaining experience afar, their Trojan teammates were winning a seventh national championship. In 2021, USC dropped just one game all season en route to a record-breaking win in the NCAA championship game. USC's three top scorers in that run have since graduated, along with two other All-American honorees. And still, even after the departure of five All-Americans, USC still got the nod as the No. 1 team in the nation in the 2022 preseason rankings. Hauschild, Kearns and Aznar's return is surely a boost to that credit, but there's still a stockpile of returning talent from that 2021 championship roster.

"It will be interesting to see how they will complement the rest of the team," Pintaric said of Hauschild, Kearns and Aznar. "The seniors we lost we can't replace, but we do have great talent to keep the ball rolling."

Headlining that talent pool are returning All-Americans Mireia Guiral, Grace Tehaney and Bayley Weber. They pumped in a combined 93 goals, including six in the 18-9 NCAA championship victory. Similar to the versatility of Hauschild, Kearns and Aznar, respectively, this trio offers up defensive strength in Weber, two-meter prowess in Guiral and a left-handed laser in Tehaney. 

Just a freshman in 2021, Julia Janov gleaned invaluable experience as a member of that championship squad, while relative veterans Sabrina Garabet and Sophia Lucas also soaked in significant playing time to solidify their roles as leaders this year. And on the defensive end, USC has two strong goalies returning to help anchor the Trojans in upperclassmen Erin Tharp and Carolyne Stern. 

"There's a very healthy competition between Carolyne and Erin," Pintaric said. "We have high expectations on the goalie side for them to be in charge of our defense. I've seen them develop, and we are confident in their performance."

In addition to USC's returning stalwarts, the Trojans welcome many fresh faces in a bumper class of freshman talent. A spring addition to the roster, Honnie Vandewegh-O'Shea has been a quick fit and is tabbed as an immediate impact player by Pintaric. Another key freshman in the mix with impressive effort in her first year as a Trojan is driver Isabel Zimmerman.

As it looks now, this will be the first "normal" season for USC women's water polo following two years impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. USC's 2020 campaign was cut short with the Trojans ranked No. 1 in the nation. And 2021 featured a modified schedule with expanded MPSF competition and minimal nonconference competition en route to the Trojans' run to the national championship. As 2022 competition kicks off on Saturday (Jan. 29), USC is looking toward another powerful season that ultimately will see the Trojans maneuver into yet another NCAA appearance. USC has made it to all 17 NCAA tournaments, with no plans to change course. The Trojans also have the benefit of hosting this year's MPSF Tournament, which will run April 22-24 at Uytengsu Aquatics Center.

"It's always great to play in your own house in front of your own fans. We are looking forward to hosting MPSFs," Pintaric said. "A lot of teams this year are deeper and stronger, and it's going to the be very, very interesting to see how the season goes. It's going to be very competitive."

USC's 2022 campaign begins Saturday (Jan. 28) with a double-header featuring a 2 p.m. clash against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps followed by a 3:15 p.m. meeting with Occidental at Marks Stadium.