As I've written before, one of my favorite facts about Indiana sports is that not only do we have a women's water polo team here in this Midwestern landlocked state, but also that this team is quite good. Good enough, in fact, to be the only team east of the Rockies to make last weekend's NCAA Tournament, held at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center on the campus of USC. The team finished in seventh place, making this their best performance since a sixth-place finish in 2011, and their third all-time trip to the tournament.
Before recapping last weekend, let's take a look back to see how the team got to this point. The Hoosiers finished the regular season ranked 14th in the country and with a 12-5 record. After this, coach Barry King's squad went 7-0 in a conference round-robin tournament over the course of two weekends. Finally, it was time for their conference's tournament, on the weekend of April 25-27. The Big Ten does not sponsor water polo, so IU plays in the CWPA conference for the sports. Thus, they traveled to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania for the tournament. (College hoops fans should remember Bucknell for when they beat Kansas in the first round of March Madness, inaugurating the semi-regular tradition of Bill Self losing to double-digit seeds.)
To kick off the CWPA tournament, the Hoosiers destroyed Connecticut College. Next, they defeated University of Michigan for the fourth time this season to reach the conference title game. There, they faced off against Princeton. The Tigers took a 4-0 lead early, and still looked to be in control at halftime with a 6-4 lead. In the third quarter, however, IU mounted a comeback, and with less than a minute left, senior Amanda Redfern scored to tie the game at eight, heading into the fourth. After Princeton took the lead again in the fourth, senior and all-time leading IU goal scorer Shae Fournier took control. Fournier scored the final two goals of the game, and goalkeeper Jessica Gaudreault came up with some clutch saves, giving IU the 11-10 victory over Princeton. The victory allowed Indiana to host a play-in game for the right to go to Los Angeles for the tournament. In front of about 200 fans at the Councilman-Billingley Aquatics Center in Bloomington, the now 8th-ranked Hoosiers rolled to an 11-6 win over Wagner College. Fournier racked up four goals in the victory, and Rebecca Gerrity had a hat trick.
The NCAA Tournament, however, was an entirely different beast. The NCAA Water Polo Selection Committee placed IU against top-seeded Stanford, and teams that would usually be in the Pac-12 (but play in the MSPF Conference for water polo purposes) dominated the tourney. To give you an idea of the competition that IU was up against, I made a few charts using my mad skills at Excel. First, here's a chart of the locations of final eight teams that made the tournament:
To put this into perspective, here's a chart of all the states that have colleges that have won the NCAA women's water polo tournament, since it began in 2001:
Considering the number of Californians on the IU water polo roster, this makes sense. Finally, here's a chart of the schools that have won NCAA women's water polo titles, and the number that they have won:
Stanford, UCLA, and USC were the top three seeds in the tournament this year, respectively. With USC both the defending champion and host of the event, I emailed Evan Budrovich, Managing Editor of SB Nation USC blog Conquest Chronicles, before the tourney started, and he got me up to speed on the West Coast water polo scene. According to Budrovich, IU's first-round opponent Stanford was looking for revenge this year, since the Cardinal "lost to the Women of Troy in the National Championship last season, and that game itself went into 5 OT before USC finally pulled it out in arguably the greatest Water Polo match this decade."
Second-seeded UCLA was "extremely young, and somewhat inexperienced," Budrovich said. However, the Bruins were also "able to beat USC who has surprisingly struggled in some low-scoring affairs this year." As for his own Trojans, Budrovich raved about their team's goaltending and defense, but said that they struggled against "Jonathan Quick-like goaltenders that can just control games."
"And to be brutally honest, other than those three teams, no other team has a shot of winning the NCAA Tournament," Budrovich added.
Budrovich's insight turned out to be highly prescient. Stanford took no prisoners against the Hoosiers, winning a lopsided 18-2 victory. Sophomore Candyce Schroeder, playing in her first game in almost a month, scored the only two goals for Indiana. In their first consolation game, the Hoosiers kept the game close against Arizona State, but the Sun Devils proved to be too much, winning 13-9 even though the Hoosiers had a 7-6 lead at one point in the third quarter. The team was victorious, however, in the seventh-place game, edging UC-San Diego by the score of 9-8. Fournier recorded her 300th all-time goal in this game, the final one of her stellar college career.
As for the rest of the tournament, Stanford carried their momentum to a title, defeating rival Cal 9-5 in the semis, and beating UCLA 12-8 in the final for their fourth women's water polo title of all time and third in four years. And just as Budrovich predicted, UCLA beat USC in a low-scoring semifinal game, 5-3.
With their seventh-place NCAA tournament finish, IU closed out the season with a 23-7 record. Though the Hoosiers lose Fournier and four others to graduation next season, they will return several other key players, and will have NCAA experience under their belts. And while California still dominates the sport, Indiana will continue attempting to chip away at the Golden State's water polo hegemony.