Winning both of their games last week over No. 12 Long Beach State and No. 21 LMU, the No. 6 UC Irvine women’s water polo team (21-6, 5-0) ended their regular season winning out their last 12 contests and capturing their seventh Big West championship in nine years.
Long Beach State
The ‘Eaters ventured out to the Lindgren Aquatics Center in Long Beach on Thursday in a winner-take-all game for the Big West regular season crown. UCI was able to defeat their Black and Blue foe with a 6-3 victory and finish conference play unblemished at 5-0 — their fourth time going undefeated and improving to 40-7 all-time in league.
“I’m pleased. I think we did what we needed to do in Big West [play],” said head coach Dan Klatt. “We put ourselves in the position we want to be in going into the conference tournament but that part of the season is the most important and in order for these wins to mean something we’ve got to get our business done at the conference tournament and the girls are aware of that so I think that they’re still hungry and not satisfied and they’re ready for more.”
Senior Cambria Shockley paced the ‘Eaters in scoring with a brace of her own. Between the pipes, senior goalkeeper Annika Nelson notched nine saves and two of the nine ‘Eater steals.
Irvine shutout Long Beach (16-11, 3-2) for the entire first half of play while putting up four of their own. A senior connection between Gabby Pierandozzi and McKenna Mitchell with 3:55 left in the first gave the ‘Eaters their first goal and they never looked back. The ‘Eaters proceeded with three unanswered goals in the second to put them up 4-0 at the break.
The 49ers were finally able to get on the board in the third as they produced the only score of the period. Junior Raney Remme stopped the bleeding for the 49ers as she was able to convert on a power play nearly three minutes into the third quarter. Both teams traded two goals apiece in the final quarter of play and the ‘Eaters came out victorious and the regular season champions — earning them a first seed in the tournament and bye in the first day of action.
“I think it’s the unity on this team, no one single individual can do it on their own,” said Nelson on her team’s hot streak to end the regular season. “I know that it’s because of everyone on this team and everyone’s hard work, constant hard work, that we’re at the place that we are at.”
Friday at the Anteater Aquatics Complex marked Senior Night as they honored the careers of their seven seniors: Mitchell, Shockley, Pierandozzi, Nelson, Mackenzie Milham, Tess de Lange, and Kelsey Thornton.
“This is a really important senior class for us,” said head coach Dan Klatt. “They’ve been in the program for a long time and had a big impact on the culture of our performance in and out [of the pool]. The biggest impact, under this senior group’s leadership, is that our academics have been as good they have ever been as a program so they’ve created a culture of well-roundedness where it’s not just things that are going on in the pool but being great Anteaters everywhere that they are and that’s what we really want from our student athletes.”
Irvine successfully blanked the Lions (13-14, 5-2), 12-0, making it their second shutout in program history — last one coming in 2013 with a 14-0 win over Occidental.
Nine different ‘Eaters got in the scoring column with Shockley, Mitchell, and junior Natalie Seidemann putting up two apiece.
Nelson, who had been sidelined for five months in the season with a head injury, registered nine more saves to up her career total to 287 — making her fifth in the Anteater record books.
“[This season] was really important to me,” Nelson. “I was really nervous there for a long time that I wasn’t going to get back in and then I realized that all I can be is the best in any moment that I’m in and so I just realized that no matter what happens, [to] do your best. It really helped when I came back in the pool because it made me realize that I had the biggest obstacle in front of me, with the injury, and that there’s nothing worse than that and so it kind of was just a great motivator, to just play your best whenever you can.”
It was all ‘Eaters from start to finish as they were able to score in their first two possessions and post two four-goal quarters in the first and the fourth. LMU failed to create any good looks at goal as the UCI defense remained stellar. Although the ‘Eaters played a statistically perfect game, coach Klatt remains poised and looks for areas for his team to improve on.
“We just have to make sure we’re finishing. We create a lot of good good scoring opportunities and we need to make sure that we’re scoring the easy ones and giving ourselves the best chance [to win],” said Klatt. “We played really good defense but there’s always going to be mistakes or good plays by the other team and we want to make sure that we separate ourselves also offensively, not just on the defensive side.”
Extending their program record of consecutive wins to 12 and winning a regular season title is not enough nor the end goal for the ‘Eaters as their focus is to get back into the NCAA tournament but to do that they must try and earn an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament. It is their mentality that has gotten them in the favourable position that they are in and it is that same mentality that will carry them into the postseason.
“The feeling behind this team is blue-collar, that we don’t deserve anything, and that everything takes hard work and I think that not only helps us in the pool but outside the water and I’m just really proud to be an Anteater,” said Nelson.
The ‘Eaters will have a first game bye in the Big West Tournament and start in the semifinal game on the 29th to face the winner of the 4th/5th seed matchup at the Schaal Aquatics Center in Davis.
“They want to be back in the NCAAs and qualify for that tournament but in order to do that they cannot look past the Big West tournament,” said Klatt. “There are some good teams in our conference and it’s going to be a real challenge to come away from there as champions but that’s ultimately the goal.”