Photo Credits: Chloe Robinson (6) of the UC Davis Women's Water Polo team takes a shot attempt during a match against Fresno State on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020 at the Schaal Aquatics Center in Davis, CA. (Justin Han / Aggie File)
After last year was cut short, the motivated Aggies enter tournament season with a clear goal
The No. 10 ranked UC Davis women’s water polo team is now entering the final frame of their regular season and in what’s been a whirlwind year, there is a lot to take away. After having their season cut short last year due to COVID-19, the Aggies have been back in the pool this impressive season.
After rising COVID-19 cases hit the country hard during the fall and winter months, it was doubtful that there would even be a season. Up until January, the team’s training consisted of only distanced swimming and leg work. When they were cleared to incorporate passing and balls into their training, county guidelines eventually loosened and since then, the situation progressively got better. Still, the long road it took to work up to the season was not an easy task for all involved—it was one of uncertainty.
“It was a week by week thing [during the offseason],” said head coach Jamey Wright, who is coaching in his 36th season. “[The team] enjoys training and enjoys each other’s company. I think those two things really got us through those tough times. You don’t know if you’re going to have any games. There’s a lot of questions in your head like ‘why am I working so hard?’”
For the players, trying to recreate the normal team feel was not easy. With all protocols in place, building that team chemistry during a pandemic was difficult.
“It was pretty tough in the beginning,” said junior attacker and psychology major Emily Aikema. “We had a lot of team meetings together, we did team bonding, everything we could—obviously socially distanced. We just have a good team and a really dedicated group of girls this season.”
When the team got the green light to play a season, it was time to get to work. Getting tested three times a week and 48 hours before a game, the protocols were set for the Aggies to begin their water polo season. In their first taste of action after almost a year, the team hosted No.11 Fresno State at the Schaal Aquatics Center in Davis on Feb. 13. In a close matchup, UC Davis fell in overtime 11-12, but were able to see them once again in a doubleheader two weeks later—this time in Fresno. After falling in the first leg of the double header, the team was able to finally knock them off, earning their first win of the season, 10-7.
“I was honestly surprised that we were going to have a season,” Aikema said. “I’m very grateful that we had a season and I know a lot of other girls [on the team] are very grateful as well. It’s just really nice playing with a team that gets along and all want the same goal.”
Having been in a rhythm and practicing full-on now, the team began to find their groove. In a span of two weeks, the Aggies were able to put together four straight impressive wins against ranked teams. They beat No. 17 Pacific University twice, No. 15 San Jose State and upset No. 4 ranked UC Irvine in the first leg of the doubleheader on March 12. Despite losing the second leg, the Aggies’ big wins in previous weeks began to draw the national spotlight, as they climbed the rankings. A split against No. 9 UC Santa Barbara on March 21 followed by a sweep of Long Beach State a week later, gave them their eighth win of the season as they closed the month of March.
As with many things in life during the pandemic, the team had to make many adjustments this season, especially in regard to travel. In a normal season, there are events held in one location where many teams meet throughout a weekend and play on a neutral site. There are also occasions when the team has to travel both in state and out of state. This year, in an effort to reduce travel and stays, most games have been doubleheaders played the same day. Aside from their trip to Santa Barbara and their upcoming trip to Hawai’i, the Aggies have been able to avoid overnight trips this year, a much different experience than they are used to.
Against No. 8 ranked UC San Diego, the Aggies were able to again achieve a split, moving to their ninth win of the year—surpassing last year’s shortened season’s total. On April 17, the team hosted Fresno Pacific in a doubleheader, beating them handedly both times, by scores of 17-2 and 13-5 respectively. With only two games remaining in the season at Hawai’i, UC Davis is shaping up to be a force as they enter the Big West Tournament.
The team’s solid defense and scoring have catapulted UC Davis to the edge of the top 10 in the Collegiate Water Polo Association rankings. Led by center and sophomore human development major Noelle Wijnbelt who has 28 goals, the Aggies have been able to outscore their opponents by a total of 141-130. Aikema has also played a major role this year, as the junior has 35 total points thus far. The team as a whole has eight players in double digits, a sign that their scoring strength is fairly spread out. Even during all this success and a much better year in terms of wins than last year, head coach Jamey Wright is still taking it on a weekly basis, as the team approaches the end of the regular season.
“In a strange way, I’m still kind of holding my breath,” Wright said. “Just two weeks ago, [UC] Santa Barabara, who is in our conference, suddenly had a group of people test positive [for COVID-19] and had to cancel the rest of their season. We’re only 10 yards from the safe ground but any step can be your last one. We just keep applauding our team ‘way to stay safe and keep staying safe.’”
With only two games remaining until the Big West Conference Tournament, the Aggies hope to make it back to the NCAA Tournament—a place they haven’t gone since the 2008 season where they finished fourth. They will finish playing 18 games, two less than last year’s season which was cut short. Regardless, this has been one of the most memorable seasons thus far in the careers of not only the players, but the coaches.
“This feels like all of a sudden it’s April. How did that happen? It was so quick,” Wright said. “It’s just a great group. We’re relatively young, but I’m just so proud of them with how well they followed the rules and followed the protocols [this year].”
Written by: Omar Navarro — firstname.lastname@example.org