The Lions are no longer the king of the jungle.
In what hasarguably becomethe biggest rivalry incollegiatewater polo,UC Davis and LoyolaMarymount have met in the Western Water Polo Association championship game the last four years,with the Lions winning two out of threecoming into Sunday afternoon‘s contest.
The Lions had won seven of the last nine WWPA titles.Factoring in having homepool advantage and the challenge the Aggies hadwith their first two tournament opponents,it waslooking like LMU might repeat.
Butafter falling7-6in overtimelast seasonin the same title game,the Aggies weredetermined to not let it happen again.
Enthralled in the quest for revenge,the Aggies dethroned the Lions10-9to become just the second team inprogram history to becrownedWWPA champions and advance to the NCAA tournament.In the first round,the fourth-seeded Aggieswill facefifth-seededSan DiegoState,which they defeated earlier this season,8-7.
“Who we play does not change my level of excitement,“ head coach Jamey Wright said.“I‘m just thrilled to represent the WWPA in this tournament.“
Although the Aggies came into theconference tournament as the topseed,they did not waltz into the title game like the champions they would leave the contest as.
BothCalStateMontereyBay andSanta Clara gave UC Davisconsiderable trouble,withthe Aggies winning11-6and5-4,respectively.
Friday– No.9UC Davis11,CalStateMontereyBay6
Through21minutes of play,the ninth-ranked team in the nation was deadlocked with the ninth seed in the conference tournament.
Although the Aggies had spanked the Otters13-4earlier in the season and came into the game the heavy favorite,they could not shake the peskyMonterey team.
But after three-and-a-half quarters,senior center Laura Uribe decided that she had seen enough.
Uribe punched in two goals in less than two minutes and the Aggies never looked back,polluting the Otters‘ hopes of any further playoff life with an11-6opening round victory.
UC Davis never trailed in the game but was unable togain more than a one goal advantageuntil the0:31mark in the third period.
Uribe posted a hat trick for the second time this season against the Otters whilejunior Lindsay Kiyama added two strikes in the Aggies‘ victory.
Saturday– UC Davis5,No.17Santa Clara4
After defeating the Broncos8-3in dominating fashion only two weeks earlier,the stage was set for another Aggie victory.
ButSanta Clara had something to say about who was going to get the carrot at the end of this horse race.
Butitwas quite fitting that the defensive horse of the team,senior Jessica Soza,would score the winning goal in such a defensively dominated game.
The WWPA tournament MVP got it done on both ends of the pool,leading the Aggies with two goals in their5-4semifinal victory over fifth-seededSanta Clara.
“Santa Clara did a better job protecting the ball than they did against us twoweeks ago at Schaal,“ Wright said.“[That] really minimized our counterattack opportunities.“
The lack of counterattacks really put theUC Davis defensein the spotlight.
But the Aggies were more than ready to accept the challenge,being one of the better defenseteamsin the tournament allowing on average five goals per contest against conference opponents all season.
Because both teams were so defensively sound,the game came down to executing on man-up opportunities.
The Aggies held off two5-on-6opportunities in both the third and fourth quarters while Uribe scored two and Kiyama struck once on6-on-5s.
“Our5-on-6defense was another big factor for us,“ Wrightsaid.“Casie Mota had some big field blocks and Christi [Raycraft] had the one at the end.“
Sunday– UC Davis10,No.12LMU9
The Aggies‘ leading scorer had only been heard from once so far in the tournament and had only scored five times in the last seven games.
Butanyonewhoknows or has watched senior captain Raycraft knows two things:she is a clutch player and she takes more pleasure inbeating LMU than any player to ever play the game.
In what could have been the last game of her career,Raycraft had a chance to exhibit both of these traits,and came up huge in the biggest game of the year.TheDavisnative let her presence be known,scoring three goals in the title fight in way to leading her Aggies to a WWPA tournament victory for the record books,10-9.
Kiyama and Uribe kept producing like they had all weekend with two goals each and Soza added a strike.
But UC Davis also received help from an unexpected place.
SeniorreserveMadeline Stephenson had only scored12goals all season coming into Sunday‘s championship game.Deliveringan electrifyingperformance,theRoseville,Calif.native sparked a huge second quarter for the Aggies with twogame-changing goals.
The team entered the quarter down4-2but came out with a7-6lead going into the halftime break.
“We won the game in the second quarter,“ Wright said.“We shot the ball better after being a little tentative,getting more quality shots.Madeline Stephenson was huge off the bench for us.She scored on two lobs,which is her shot.“
The Aggies never gave up the lead they took from the Lions in the second quarter,and a goal by LMU with45seconds remaining proved too little too late.
It was quite apparent that the UC Davis seniors were not ready to end their season,scoring eight of the10goals in the championship game and scoring21out of27all weekend.
“When you have such deserving seniors as we have,you‘re almost relieved to win this,“ Wrightsaid.“Every team and every coach works hard to get to this tournament.But this group of seniors has come such a long waythat I don’t think I could bear it if they didn’t win it.This win is a tribute to this group– they have done a tremendous job.“
With thewin the Aggiesmove their winning streak to13andtie the program record for most winsin a seasonwith26.
The Aggies will travelto Stanford for women‘s water polo May Madnessat the NCAA Tournamentfrom May9to11.
SAMMY BRASCH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.XXX