A historic season for the UC Irvine women’s water polo team (19-9) came down to the last crucial minutes in the NCAA first round matchup against California (20-7) on Friday. Having not beaten Cal since 2005, the ‘Eaters were looking to upset the Bears and advance to the semi final matchup in hopes to bring home their first ever NCAA Championship.
Having lost the Big West final to Hawaii, the Anteaters’ only hope of getting into the NCAA tournament was an at-large bid. Due to their impressive performance in the regular season against the nation’s top competition, UCI earned their first ever at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. This feat not only made UCI history, but Big West conference history, as for the first time the Big West had two of its teams competing in the national tournament. The ‘Eaters would head to Stanford for a No.4 versus No.5 matchup in the NCAA tournament.
UCI showed a gutsy effort against the Cal Bears but still fell to a score of 6-5. Both freshman Mary Brooks and junior Kelsey Thornton led the way for the ‘Eaters with two goals apiece. Cal also had two of its players, sophomores Roser Tarrago and Dora Antal, score two goals each for their team. Both teams showed grit and poise in this back and forth matchup in the Avery Aquatic Center.
Irvine wasted no time in the first period, as Brooks scored on UCI’s first offensive possession. The Cal Bears would quickly answer, in just 20 seconds after the Anteater score, to tie the contest at one apiece. Cal did a good job defensively keeping UCI on the perimeter and limiting their easy inside shots. Cal would go on to score two more by the end of the period to find themselves up 3-1. The Bears scored early in the second period to increase their run to four unanswered goals. Finding themselves in a hole, the Anteaters responded to cut the Bear lead before the half. Sophomore Mackenzie Milham scored with 5:53 left in the half to stop the bleeding and cut into the Cal lead. Momentum began to shift to the ’Eaters way as Brooks scored her second goal of the game to end the half with Cal up, 4-3.
The Anteaters continued to roll into the third period, as Thornton scored two consecutive goals to give the Anteaters their first lead since the beginning of the game. Cal, having allowed four consecutive goals by UCI, answered back quickly to tie the game at 5-5.
With both teams knotted up heading into the fourth, UCI was looking to get their first win against Cal this year, having lost the regular season series. The fourth period exhibited a defensive chess match where both teams were relying on solid goalkeeping to hang on to any chances of leaving that game victorious. UCI senior goalkeeper Jillian Yocum withstood the Bear attack and had 11 saves on the night. It was Cal senior Kelly McKee who broke the ice in the fourth period with her late goal with 2:54 left in the game. The Anteaters found themselves down 6-5 with two minutes left in the game. With the season on the line, the ‘Eaters felt the pressure form the Bears and conceded three costly turnovers to secure the win for Cal.
With the loss against Cal, the ‘Eaters would continue to play games to decide what place they earned in the NCAA tournament. UCI faced UC San Diego Saturday to see who advanced to the fifth place game of the NCAA tournament. Senior Danielle Warde, with an impressive five-goal performance, led the Anteaters over the Tritons to a score of 13-8. Warde became only the fourth Anteater in program history to pass the 200-goal mark in career goals. Mary Brooks continued her solid play this weekend with a hat trick of her own. Seven different Anteaters had scoring opportunities in the game against the Tritons and they would advance to play Princeton on Sunday.
The duo of Brooks and Warde continued their hot streak as they both contributed to all of UCI’s six goals against Princeton on Sunday. Four goals from Brooks and two from Warde were enough to edge the Tigers and earn the 6-5 victory. Anteater goalkeeper Jillian Yocum made history in her last collegiate game as she became the Eaters’ all time leader in saves. With the win, UCI placed fifth place in the NCAA tournament.