Winning has become such second nature to the No. 6 UC Irvine women’s water polo team that head coach Dan Klatt didn’t even know that his team broke a program record with their 8-2 victory over UC Davis at the Anteater Aquatics Complex this past Saturday.
Improving to a 19-6 overall record and a perfect 4-0 start to Big West play, the ‘Eaters notched a program-best 10 consecutive wins, breaking the previous school record set back in 2012. In the 10-game span, the ‘Eaters also received a national ranking as high as No. 5 — the highest the program has reached in their history.
“To be honest, I didn’t even know about [the record]. These are just important games for us at this time of the year to be successful, because they’re conference games and help us get our seed for the tournament,” said Klatt. “Certainly, it is exciting, but the 10 wins in a row won’t mean anything if we don’t win our next four games.”
The team was also awarded five player of the week recognitions this year — tying for second most in Big West history.
Junior Mary Brooks earned the conference’s recent nod, which gives her the second of the year and third of her career. Senior McKenna Mitchell also garnered two weekly honors, which increases her career tally to five, which ties her for most all-time in the conference. With his team stacked with individual talent, coach Klatt recognizes that it is how the team plays together that has elevated their play and will carry them moving forward to the postseason.
“I think it’s really important for us to play as a group,” said Klatt. “Certainly we have good players as any good team does, but the best teams are the ones that maximize the talent from all its players, and that’s always the goal: to get to this time of year and make sure we know how to play together. We know what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how to maximize those abilities together. It’s hard to stop.”
Being sidelined for five months with a nagging head injury, senior goalkeeper Annika Nelson made her season debut earlier this month and has shown no rust in-between the pipes. She has 37 saves in the last four games — saving a penalty shot against the Aggies (14-16, 2-3) on Saturday.
“[Nelson] is probably the best athlete on our team. She is a really good player and has been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, and it was almost had it taken away from her,” said Klatt. “She got an opportunity to come back and is soaking up and taking advantage of every minute that she can have.”
Six different ‘Eaters scored in the contest as Brooks and fellow senior Gabby Pierandozzi both led with two goals apiece.
It was the ‘Eaters who were able to get on the board first as they drew a penalty on a counterattack at the 6:15 mark of the first period. Mitchell converted on the penalty shot as she skipped the ball towards the back of the net to give the ‘Eaters the lead they would not relinquish. Three minutes later, it was the outlet connection from Nelson to Brooks that caused the Aggies to foul and give the ‘Eaters a power play. Pierandozzi took advantage of the exclusion call and muscled in a goal to increase the lead to two. The Aggies were able to get on the board with just 1:40 left in the first as they were able to score on a six-on-five situation of their own. Junior Greta Kohlmoos was able to thread the needle between the wall of Pierandozzi, Nelson and Mitchell to keep the game in reach at 2-1.
The second period belonged to the ‘Eaters as they scored all four goals of the quarter. Junior Corinna Toledo opened up the scoring run as a defensive lapse by the Aggies allowed Toledo to waltz up close and bury the ball to the back of the cage. With nearly two minutes left, senior Cambria Shockley rifled in a shot from distance that beat Aggie goalkeeper Avery Dotterer to boost the UCI lead to 4-1. The misfortunes would not stop for Davis as another penalty opportunity was awarded to Irvine with 23 seconds left in the half, which Brooks converted on to complete her brace. A huge mishap to the defensive end for the Aggies with under 10 seconds left allowed the ‘Eaters to pounce as sophomore Cara Borkovec capitalized and gave Irvine the 6-1 lead heading into intermission.
Irvine increased their run with two more in the third period with Pierandozzi attacking the weak side at the 5:21 mark and Brooks besting Dotterer on a head to head scenario a few minutes later to increase their lead, 8-1. The Aggies managed to stop the bleeding with 19 ticks left when junior Paige Virgil lobbed a high arcing shot that grazed the fingertips of an ascending Nelson and floated right into the goal. Davis owned the only action in the fourth period where they earned a penalty shot with 7:44 remaining in the game. The shot was saved by Nelson, who ended the contest tying her season-best of 12 saves, and the ‘Eaters preserved their win with the highest momentum possible heading into the conference tournament coming in two weeks.
“It is really important to have that confidence but it’s also important to remember the pain of losing and what it feels like,” said Klatt. “We’ve certainly done some things in practice where I get on their case and make them end on a bad rep, so they know what it feels like to feel unfulfilled and to not have that ‘always winning feeling,’ because I do think it’s important to be reminded that if you’re not focused and honed in and thinking all the time about not just winning, but what creates wins, the things you need to do to get to wins, then you could get beaten.”
The ‘Eaters will conclude the regular season with a conference road matchup against Long Beach State on Thursday and will host Senior Night against Loyola Marymount on Friday before heading up to Davis for the Big West Tournament starting the 28th.