Lightning strikes thrice

    In a performance which surpassed its regular season level of play, the UCSD women’s water polo team experienced an offensive surge by knocking off No. 7 Cal State Hayward 13–3 on April 23 and dominating third-seed UC Davis 10–6 on April 24 at the Western Water Polo Association Conference Championships, hosted by Loyola Marymount. The semifinal win over UC Davis advanced the second-seed Tritons to their third consecutive WWPA title game, where they faced No. 7 Loyola Marymount on April 25 with a shot at the NCAA D-II Championships on the line. UCSD was eliminated by the Lions in a 7-3 contest.

    Loyola Marymount has had the edge over the Tritons, who were 15-19 entering the match, winning the 2003 head-to-head schedule in 10-1 and 8-3 victories and crushing UCSD’s hopes in the last two WWPA finals. This time, however, the Lions had to face a squad that seemed to have found its goal-scoring touch just in time for the tournament. The Tritons defeated No. 6 Hawaii, which is ranked higher than Loyola Marymount, on April 18, and effectively spread out their offensive output by including eight scorers in the effort.

    The Tritons credited their sudden intensity on offense to an increased sense of teamwork.

    “People are starting to realize that you can’t focus on one or two people, and [we’re] starting to take more shots … and keeping up our intensity,” senior goalie Stephanie Lombardo said.

    This intensity transformed the UC Davis-UCSD matchup from its usual grind-it-out manner to a display of Triton domination. After battling to a 3-2 advantage at the end of the first period, UCSD jumped all over the Aggies’ mistakes to score four unanswered goals and take a commanding 7-2 lead by the half. In comparison, neither team led by more than one goal in their Feb. 21 match, which wasn’t settled until a last-second goal won it for the Tritons.

    Junior driver Jessica Wong led the offensive rally for UCSD, nailing a hat trick in the first half. Junior utility Tobi Lyman scored a pair, while junior driver Courtney Clevenger, freshman two-meter Natalie Hockett and senior two-meter Lesha Bounds each contributed to the second-period flurry.

    With only one goal, senior two-meter defender Meris Bantilan-Smith had a relatively quiet game on offense, but stepped up her defensive game by repeatedly denying UC Davis any room to score.

    With help from Bantilan-Smith’s gritty play, the Tritons staved off a UC Davis threat in the third period. The Aggies rallied to score three points, capitalizing on two man-up advantages, cutting UCSD’s lead to 8-5. The flustered UC Davis squad would find itself shut down to one goal in the fourth period. Triton defense also held the NCAA women’s water polo all-time leading scorer, UC Davis’ Tiffany Hodgens, to just a pair of scores.

    “We capitalized on a few of their mistakes, and we ran with that intensity the rest of the game,” Lombardo said.

    UCSD’s momentum carried over from its commanding 13-3 quarterfinal triumph over Cal State Hayward. The key to victory was once again the Tritons’ eight-person scoring push, led by a hat trick from junior Jaemi Jackson, followed by pairs from Bantilan-Smith, Wong and sophomore driver Flynn LaRochelle, who has been instrumental in scoring off the bench.

    The Tritons drew first blood, but Cal State Hayward struck with a pair of goals to keep things close at 4-2. As the defense finally dug in, UCSD pulled away with five unanswered goals in the second period. The Pioneers never led once, nor did they register a pulse until they scored a consolation goal in the fourth.

    The Tritons found themselves in a familiar, almost perennial, position in staring down Loyola Marymount for the WWPA title on April 25 at Burns Recreation and Aquatics Center.

    “We need to bring that same intensity and come out aware, because if we slow down, Loyola Marymount will capitalize on all those opportunities,” Lombardo said before the game. “But Loyola Marymount is going to be shocked at our intensity; we’re not the same team.”

    The Lions came out for the championship game ready to kill, and held the Tritons scoreless through the first half, going on a 4-0 run through two periods.

    The Tritons were finally allowed to pick up the intensity of their game in the third period, beating Loyola Marymount, 2-1, but still bearing a significant disadvantaged entering the final seven-minute quarter, 5-2.

    The drive that UCSD sought was nowhere to be found, and the Tritons succumbed to the Lions, 7-3.

    UCSD played in four of the last five WWPA championship games, only to come up short against Loyola Marymount every time. With each game, the Tritons have come closer and closer to finally knocking off the Lions, who have maintained control over the WWPA ranks. UCSD fell only two goals short in last season’s 8-6 title match and made it tough for the Lions before faltering in their March 6 regular season match. This time, UCSD also had to deal with a raucous LMU home crowd.

    UCSD finishes the 2004 season at No. 2 in the WWPA with a 15-20 record.

    Complete details for the April 25 championship game were unavailable at press time, and will be released in the April 29 edition of the UCSD Guardian.

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