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Davis, California

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Game of the year?

UC Davis and Loyola Marymount are used to sharing pool time – they have competed against each other on 11 different occasions over the past four years.

On Saturday at noon, the two women’s water polo rivals were again in the water at the same time – only this time they were 400 miles apart.

At the Schaal Aquatics Center in Davis, the No. 10 Aggies faced No. 19 Santa Clara. Meanwhile, at the Burns Aquatics Center in Los Angeles, the No. 11 Lions hosted No. 17 UC San Diego.

Two rivals in two different places at one time, and what happened next changed the look of the upcoming Women’s Water Polo Association Championships.

In Davis, the Aggies (22-8, 12-1) continued their run as the WWPA’s hottest team, winning their ninth straight game, 8-3. With the victory, they clinched the top seed of the league championships, to be held Apr. 25 to 27 at LMU.

“It was a great way to finish out conference play before conference championships,” said sophomore goalie Casey Hines, who didn’t allow a goal in her three-plus quarters of work.

In Los Angeles, the Lions (17-10, 8-3) saw their Senior Day spoiled, 9-7. With the defeat, they registered their first 10-loss season since 2000 and lost grasp of the conference’s second seed. The Tritons improved their WWPA record to 9-3 with the win.

Based on Saturday’s results, it might appear that while UC Davis is surging, LMU is slipping. It might appear as though the Lions – after winning the WWPA title six of the last seven years – are primed for an early exit in the conference playoffs, and that UC Davis can waltz to the league crown.

Don’t be fooled.

LMU’s loss to UCSD was less a sign of weakness and more a testament to how competitive the WWPA is – as many as five teams have a realistic shot to win the conference tournament.

That said, regardless of seeding, UC Davis and LMU are still the hands-down favorites to win it all. And if history is any indicator, the two teams will match up in the finals in an epic showdown.

After all, they did in 2006 when the Aggies won 8-7, and in 2007 when the Lions won in overtime, 7-6.

“We would expect if we made it to the championship to see LMU,” Hines said. “Last year was disappointing and really a tough loss in the championship. I didn’t play, but it was just as hard. And now we have eight seniors this year and it’s just going to be different. Nobody is ready to finish at the end of April. We want to go into NCAAs, so that’s the goal right now. It has been all year.”

UC Davis is fully capable of reaching that goal.

It has arguably the best depth and offensive balance in the league, as showcased Saturday when its eight goals were scored by eight different players. Most notably, the team possesses a formidable defense led by senior Jessica Soza, who Hines has called “one of the best defenders in all of water polo.”

But as the tournament host and defending champion, LMU would prove to be a worthy adversary.

“They’ve got some big players – some really, really strong players who will get into you, and they just have a lot of strength so they can get separation,” Hines said. “They’ll shoot it hard with only an inch of space to shoot it.

“But we’re really fast, and we’ve got some strong players, too. We’re smart and I think we work really well together. We have no one who’s just trying to do it all by themselves and no one who slacks off.”

Added head coach Jamie Walker: “If we end up in this game, regardless of the one-seed, we’re playing in their pool, and with the history, we’re definitely going to go in as the underdog, which is fine by me. It’s fine by me. I want to go in with a chip on our shoulder.”

Two rivals in two different places. If they clash in two weeks, watch out.

 

MICHAEL GEHLKEN wrote this column now instead of next week so fans can plan out their road trips well in advance. He will be at the Aggies’ home finale Friday at 4 p.m. at the Schaal Aquatics Center and can be reached at sports@californiaaggie.com.

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