No. 2 USC Women’s Water Polo Seeks First Back-to-Back NCAA Titles
2022 National Collegiate Women's Water Polo Tournament
Canham Natatorium (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Opening Round: Wednesday, May 4
Wagner vs. Salem — TBD
Quarterfinals: Friday, May 6
Q1:  Stanford vs. Wagner/Salem — 12 p.m. ET
Q2:  UCLA vs. UC Irvine — 2 p.m. ET
Q3:  USC vs. Fresno State — 4 p.m. ET
Q4:  Cal vs. Michigan — 6 p.m. ET
Semifinals: Saturday, May 7
Q1 winner vs. Q2 winner — 3 p.m. ET
Q3 winner vs. Q4 winner — 5 p.m. ET
Championship: Sunday, May 8
Semifinal winners — 4 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Defending national champion USC has secured its 18th consecutive NCAA tournament berth in earning the No. 2 seed into this 2022 tournament. The Trojans will take an 18-3 record into the 2022 National Collegiate Women's Water Polo Championship, hosted this year by Michigan at Canham Natatorium from May 6-8. USC is looking win back-to-back NCAA championships for the first time in program history. Winners of seven prior national titles, the Trojans (18-3) will open the 2022 NCAA Tournament on Friday (May 6), against Fresno State (19-7). In the Opening Round game on May 4, Wagner (34-3) will play Salem (18-15) for the right to play top seed Stanford (22-2) on Friday. The other quarterfinal matchups are set: No. 4 seed UCLA (22-5) takes on UC Irvine (22-6), while No. 3 seed California (16-5) faces host Michigan (26-8). Winners advance to Saturday (May 7) semifinal rounds, with the 2022 national championship bout set for 4 p.m. ET on Sunday (May 8). The title match will be televised on ESPNU, with the prior games streamed on ncaa.com/live. Live stats and live stream links are all available at the NCAA Tournament Central page at mgoblue.com/sports/2022/4/7/water-polo-ncaa-championship-2022.aspx.
USC started up 2022 in the same spot it left off, with the defending NCAA champs opening up at No. 1 in this year's preseason poll. USC remained on top for the first three weeks of competition and was at No. 3 for one week before going to No. 2. USC had been at No. 3 since March 9 until its takeover of the top on April 6. The Trojans remain at No. 1 in the land in the latest national rankings (released April 20).
Winners of seven previous national championships, USC holds a 37-12 all-time record in NCAA tournaments. USC's first title came in 1999 before the NCAA sponsored women's water polo. In 2004, USC posted the first-ever undefeated season on the way to capturing the 2014 NCAA title. USC's third title came in 2010 — the last time the Trojans swept the MPSF coach, player and newcomer awards — in a championship won over Stanford. Three years later in 2013, the Trojans topped the Cardinal in tripe sudden-death overtime — the longest NCAA final in history — to claim a fourth national championship for USC. In another three years, USC was back on top once more, posting a second undefeated season en route to the 2016 NCAA Championship in another epic battle against Stanford. And 2018 brought USC its sixth crown in a defensive 5-4 win over Stanford at the Trojans' Uytengsu Aquatics Center. This year marks USC's 17th consecutive NCAA appearance and 17th overall, as the Trojans hold a 34-12 all-time record in NCAA tournament games since the even began in 2001. What's more, the Women of Troy have a chance to register the university's 110th NCAA team championship and 133rd team national championship with a run to this 2022 tourney title.
This year's National Collegiate field includes seven automatic qualifiers from conference championships and two at-large teams. Six teams qualify directly to the championship field, and the remaining four teams will compete in Opening Round games on May 4. Those winners will advance to quarterfinal games set for May 6, with semifinals held May 7 and the NCAA Championship game set for 4 p.m. ET on May 8. All games will be played at Michigan's Canham Natatorium. Earning automatic berths this year are Stanford (MPSF), Michigan (CWPA), Fresno State (Golden Coast), UC Irvine (Big West), Salem (WWPA) and Wagner (MAAC). This year's at-large teams are USC, California and UCLA — all out of the MPSF.
THIS TIME LAST YEAR
Last year, the Trojans were the top seeds and had dropped just a single game all year entering the 2021 National Collegiate Championship. USC would avenge that loss in the NCAA title match. After opening with a 24-5 win over Marist, USC beat Arizona State 10-4 in the semifinals with Verica Bakoc and Maud Megens each recording hat tricks in the win over the Sun Devils. That brought up a rematch against host UCLA, which USC overpowered with an 18-9 victory that set an NCAA record for goals scored and margin of victory in a final to leave no doubt as USC secured its seventh national championship. Redshirt seniors Maud Megens and Holly Parker were the driving forces on both ends of a very well-balanced effort by the Trojans, as Megens nailed six goals and Parker collected a career-high 13 saves. At the close of competition, Megens was named NCAA Tournament MVP, joined by Denise Mammolito and Parker on the NCAA All-Tournament First Team. USC finished the year at 22-1 overall having very much avenged its only loss of the year with this dominating victory over the Bruins. What's more, that NCAA trophy marked the university's 109th NCAA team championship and 132nd team national championship.
BY THE NUMBERS
As the Trojans enter NCAA action, USC's scoring pace continues to be led by Olympian Tilly Kearns, who has scored 56 goals to date for the Trojans. She is followed closely by Bayley Weber's 50 blasts. Paige Hauschild meanwhile, is well into 40-goal terrain with 43 goals. And Grace Tehaney is next in line wit 39. Tehaney has scored in 20 of USC's 21 games to date. Defensively, Carolyne Stern and Erin Tharp have shared time in the cage, averaging a combined 6.9 saves per game to anchor a Trojan defense giving up just 7.1 goals per game. USC has outscored opponents 315-148 so far, while holding teams scoreless in 11 different periods to date.
ON THE RISE
With her work at the Triton Invite, Grace Tehaney became the latest Trojan to work her way into the 100-goal club at USC, joining the earlier-inducted Bayley Weber. Tehaney is now at 122 career goals, while Weber currently holds 140 career goals as a Trojan — ranking her at No. 18 all-time. Meanwhile, Paige Hauschild is also on the climb, boasting 160 career goals to rank No. 13 all-time in the Trojan history books to date. Knocking on the door of the 100-goal club, meanwhile, is senior Mireia Guiral, who currently clocks in at 96 career goals. On the defensive end, goalie Carolyne Stern has moved to No. 9 all-time at USC with her 162 career saves to date.
STERN HAULS IN FIRST MPSF HONOR
Goalie Carolyne Stern came up big for the top-ranked Trojans in their 9-7 win over No. 3 UCLA, and her performance netted her first career honor as the MPSF Player of the Week on April 19. Against the Bruins in the final game of the regular season last weekend, Stern made eight saves, including a 5-meter penalty stop and two 1-on-1 counterattack saves. She also had a steal in the win. Her eighth save against a 7-on-6 attack preserved USC's 9-7 lead in the final minute. Stern's performance not only helped USC wrap an undefeated run through MPSF play, it improved her career saves total to 146 — lifting the junior three saves away from ranking No. 9 all-time in career saves at USC.
USC's top scorer at the Triton Invitational, Bayley Weber extended her run of multi-goal games to eight straight and deservedly earned her first career selection as the MPSF Player of the Week on Feb. 15. Weber tallied 11 goals for the Trojans in their run to the Triton Invite final. She scored three goals in the title match, an 11-10 loss to UCLA, after providing two in USC's 9-7 win over Hawai'i in the semifinals that morning. Weber also scored two to help beat UCSB 17-6 and then four goals to beat Long Beach State 17-6 in group play. Almost two months later, Weber recorded her second career MPSF Player of the Week selection on April 12. In a balanced effort in an MPSF road win, Weber recorded her 16th multi-goal game of the year with two goals along with three field blocks, two steals and an assist as USC beat the host Sun Devils 15-11. Weber, who has scored in all but two games this season, ranks No. 18 all-time in career scoring at USC with 140 goals.
MIRI MAKES ANOTHER MPSF MARK
Senior Mireia Guiral caused trouble for opponents on both ends of the pool in the Trojans' recent victorious road trip, and she was honored as the MPSF Player of the Week for the third time in her career and the first time this season. Guiral scored four goals on six shots, amassed six steals and had two field blocks and an assist in USC's winning MPSF weekend, as the Trojans beat Stanford 10-8 and San José State 18-5. Against the host Cardinal, Guiral's first of two goals gave USC a 3-2 lead in the second period, and the Trojans never trailed the rest of the way. Her second goal lifted USC to an 8-5 advantage in the third. She also had three steals and a field block in the victory over Stanford. The next day, Guiral scored twice in the second half as USC broke away from the Spartans. She also had three more steals along with an assist and another field block to help USC to victory over the Spartans. Guiral became the third Trojan to be named an MPSF Player of the Week this season, following two picks for Tilly Kearns and one for Bayley Weber in 2022. Guiral's past MPSF Player of the Week selections came during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Guiral is currently USC's fifth leading scorer this year with 28 goals to date. That gives the senior 96 career goals as she hunts down a chance to break the 100-goal barrier.
TILLY TAKES TWO
Tilly Kearns secured her second selection as the MPSF Player of the Week on March 22 after a powerful performance in Hawai'i. In a night game in Honolulu, Kearns scored a game-high four goals on five shots taken in USC's 12-9 road win at No. 5 Hawai'i. She scored twice in the first period to help the Trojans lead it 5-3 early, and her third also got USC a two-goal advantage, up 9-7 in the third. Kearns' fourth goal of the night was the final stroke in USC's 12-9 victory. Kearns leads the Trojans in scoring so far this season with 56 goals.
TILLY TALLIES MPSF HONORS
In USC's first MPSF clash against undefeated Cal, Tilly Kearns scored three goals, drew four exclusions and had two steals in a 13-7 Trojan win over the Golden Bears. For her powerful performance in USC's key conference win, Kearns earned her first selection as MPSF Player of the Week on Feb. 22. Kearns' first goal helped build an 8-5 halftime lead for USC, and she'd score two more in the third as USC shut out Cal in that frame to lead it 12-5.
For the first time since 2009, USC has 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.
BACK TO IT
Headlining USC's returning 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 last year. 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.
As it looks, this is 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.
In 2021, USC dropped just one game all season (22-1) en route to a record-breaking win in the NCAA championship game that marked USC's seventh national championship and first under head coach Marko Pintaric. The Trojans beat Stanford 9-6 in the MPSF Tournament title match and later avenged their only loss of the year with a dominant 18-9 win over UCLA in the national championship game, scoring the most goals ever in an NCAA final. Eventual Cutino Award winner Maud Megens scored six of those goals for the Trojans. She would also be named National Player of the Year, and Pintaric was picked as National Coach of the Year. Megens was one of a program record-tying eight All-Americans in 2021, joined on the All-America First Team by fellow seniors Denise Mammolito and Holly Parker. Junior Bayley Weber earned Second Team status, and senior Kelsey McIntosh was a Third Team pick. And earning All-America Honorable Mention were Verica Bakoc, Mireia Guiral and Grace Tehaney. •