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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Women’s water polo conquers Aztecs, takes fourth in nation

Entering the NCAA Championships, UC Davis women’s water polo already had its share of accomplishments.

It had won a conference title, tied a school record for wins and set new program marks in goals scored, assists, ejections drawn and longest winning streak.

Still, the Aggies wanted more. And they got it.

On the grand stage of the Avery Aquatic Center in front of 861 people, UC Davis proved itself to be a true fiend of the chlorine, winning the biggest game in program history over San Diego State on Friday, 9-8.

The team that broke all the records became the most accomplished water polo team UC Davis has ever seen, men’s or women’s.

By upsetting the fourth-seeded Aztecs, the fifth-seeded Aggies moved their way into the nation’s final four and into uncharted territory, becoming the only team to ever finish better than fifth.

Friday – UC Davis 9, San Diego State 8

Coming into Friday, the No. 8 Aggies had met the No. 5 Aztecs on 16 different occasions, only winning once.

That one win happened to be earlier this season when UC Davis spoiled San Diego State’s perfect 10-0 record. This time, the Aggies were the ones looking to protect a winning streak, having won 13 in a row.

Hat tricks by NCAA all-tournament honorees senior Christi Raycraft and junior Lindsay Kiyama paced the Aggie offense while sophomore Casey Hines posted six pivotal saves to fight off the Aztec attack and help the team to a 9-8 victory and its 14th consecutive win.

“Casey played an amazing game,” said head coach Jamey Wright. “Every save she had was a game-winning play. Then Raycraft played her typical amazing offensive and defensive performance. And I thought Lindsay Kiyama has been on a tear in the last 10 or 15 games in the season. It’s a big boost to have such a potent weapon from your fastest player. She had a phenomenal game.”

Building on her last three-goal performance over Loyola Marymount in the Western Water Polo Association title game, Raycraft’s hat tricks have come at essential times.

The senior co-captain found her range early in the first quarter to lead the team to a 1-0 lead. The next eight minutes consisted of an Aztec goal and some good defense by both teams.

Rarely heard from earlier in the season, sophomore center Ashley Chandler sparked an Aggie run in the second period with a goal and assist to push the Aggie lead to 3-1.

The Aztecs had a chance to tie the game with under a minute left in the half, but Hines swallowed up what should have been an easy shot at 2 meters, denying San Diego State a clean slate with which to start the second half.

Hines’ block turned into an Aggie possession where Raycraft scored from two meters with just over 10 seconds remaining in the half, sending the Aggies to break with a 5-3 lead.

The Aztecs scored early in the third, but for the most of the period neither team was able to dent the scoreboard.

End of the quarter heroics continued for the Aggies, as Chandler scored her second goal of the game with 24 ticks remaining in the frame.

Trailing 6-4 heading into the final frame, the Aztecs looked like they were set to make a quick comeback when junior Jenna Schuster won the sprint and completed her hat trick just 23 seconds later.

But the Aggies proved too experienced and too fired up to be beaten, widening the gap to three goals on two different occasions. The Aztecs scored two goals late to cut the lead to one, but it was quite apparent that UC Davis was in control for most of the contest.

The victory broke the old school record for most wins in a season with 27 and pushed the Aggies into the national spotlight in the NCAA Final Four for the first time in program history.

Saturday – UCLA 11, UC Davis 4

When coming out against the No. 1-ranked team in the country that has won three straight national championships and 40 straight games, getting through the introductions without cracking can even be tough.

But the Aggies were unfazed by the Bruins’ previous dominance and drew first blood against the defending champs with a 6-on-5 goal by senior center Laura Uribe during the opening minutes of the national semifinal.

Led by Hines’ 10 saves, the team held arguably the most dominant team in all of college sports scoreless for over seven and a half minutes of play.

Relying on their impressive defense, UC Davis held the highest-scoring team in the country to three goals in the first half, including an impressive 3-on-6 stuff that denied the Bruins of a second-quarter lead.

But a six goal outburst in the third quarter spoiled the Aggies’ chance at a national championship and showed why the eventual champion Bruins had played in the last seven NCAA title games.

Senior Mary Lowe, junior Emily Kitchens, Uribe and Kiyama all had one goal in the Aggies’ second round loss.

“It’s kind of fun being the underdog,” said Kiyama, who was selected to the all-tournament second team. “We were seeded first in the WWPA, so we knew the pressure UCLA was feeling. We were excited [at halftime] because we didn’t roll over like they probably thought we would. I thought we put up a good fight and we kept putting up a good fight in the second half, but they started hitting their shots.”

Sunday – Stanford 15, UC Davis 8

Angry at the missed opportunity of a shot at a national championship at their home pool, the Stanford Cardinal came into Sunday’s third-place game firing on all cylinders.

The first two minutes were a microcosm of the whole contest, with the Cardinal going up 2-1 in the game’s opening minutes, a lead they would never relinquish in a 15-8 win.

The high scoring affair favored the Stanford fire power instead of the Aggies’ stellar defense. A burst of three goals in less than a minute gave the Cardinal a 5-1 lead in the first period on their way to the third-place title.

“This obviously was not the best game we’ve played this year, but you really have to tip your hat to Stanford,” Wright said. “They came out aggressively, attacking in front of the goal. We gained a little bit of our balance to make it 6-3, but we never got in a rhythm after that.”

The Aggies cut the lead to 7-5 in the second period with Kiyama’s second strike, but Stanford was on it, coming back with three straight goals to end the half at 10-5.

Falling victim to 0-for-5 shooting in the third quarter, the Aggies let the Cardinal take a commanding 12-5 lead that not even three late goals could erase.

UC Davis was led by Kiyama and senior Casie Mota with two goals apiece. The Aggies finish the year at a program best 27-10.

The national tournament was a farewell to eight UC Davis seniors that will go down as one of the most diverse and talented groups in Aggie history, comprised of Raycraft, Mota, Lowe, Uribe, Jessica Soza, Madeline Stephenson and Jaclyn Loberg. Six of the eight were four-year letter winners, and five had played substantially in the team’s previous trip to the NCAA tournament in 2006.

“It’s sad to end on a loss, but at the same time I couldn’t ask to end the season in a better way,” Mota said. “Making the top four at NCAAs is something not many can say they’ve done. I wish it didn’t have to end because our group is so close. We do everything together in and out of the water. It’s just such a good feeling to know that we’ve accomplished something that no one else at our school has done.”

SAMMY BRASCH can be reached at sports@californiaaggie.com.

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