Water polo streaks to WWPA Championship

    Despite a Herculean postseason effort, rolling through Cal State Hayward and UC Davis by a combined 23-9 score to reach the Western Water Polo Association championship game, the UCSD women’s water polo team couldn’t topple hosts and WWPA kingpins Loyola Marymount, falling in the April 24 finals for the third consecutive year, 7-3.

    For Loyola Marymount, the win meant it’s fourth trip to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Final Four. For the Tritons, who finished the 2004 regular season with a 15-20 record, it was another failed attempt to end LMU’s WWPA dominance and its own championship drought. After putting up a four-game winning streak and successfully spreading its offense, UCSD entered the game knowing it had a chance to challenge the Lions.

    But in a game where near-perfection was needed, the Tritons battled pre-game jitters and a hostile and boisterous home crowd. Mistakes were few and minor, but enough for the Lions to pounce and race out to a 5-0 advantage by the third period, led by Devon Wright’s pair of scores.

    The Tritons managed to fight off the butterflies and screaming fans enough to muster a late, two-goal third-quarter run. Junior drivers Jessica Wong and Courtney Clevenger, who stepped in for a 6-on-5 advantage minutes after Clevenger received a flagrant foul and lost her tooth, nailed consecutive goals to slow the LMU advantage. Senior two-meter defender Meris Bantilan-Smith hit what would be UCSD’s final goal of 2004 to get within three with 5 minutes, 7 seconds remaining.

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    “Playing against a good team, if you make small mistakes, they can become accentuated … they’ll be aggressive in trying to make good things happen, and we just didn’t have everything,” UCSD head coach Larry Sanders said of the performance. “For a coach it can be frustrating. We’re tired of seeing Loyola Marymount winning, and that’s our goal. Maybe we fell short, but I think we still made UCSD look great.”

    The dominant offensive performance by Tritons in their game against UC Davis was absent for the better part of the first half in the championship game. UCSD shot heavily, but the ball was going nowhere near the cage. A man-up opportunity was missed in the half. After giving an early goal to Wright, the defense shored up for most of the first period. But without a UCSD offensive threat, goals from LMU’s Stacia Peterson and Sarah Hamilton at the 2:47 and 1:24 marks, respectively, gave the Lions a cushion to ease into the contest.

    UCSD, on the other hand, had trouble adjusting to the pace of the game. Despite the starting lineup’s experience, the majority of which played in the 2003 title game, the Tritons’ nervousness was evident during warm-ups.

    “Because of our nerves and pressure to shoot better, everything wasn’t going in,” UCSD senior goaltender Stephanie Lombardo said. “Lots of shots were going over the cage, even in warm-ups. The way you warm up is the way you’re going to play the game.”

    Any pressure that the cold shooting might have missed, was certainly made up by the hot home crowd. The shouts streaming from the largely pro-LMU attendance made it difficult for the Tritons to ease into a shooting streak. Lombardo recalled spending parts of the second half with the LMU men’s water polo team jeering behind her goal.

    “It’s always tough playing down at the half, but with the men’s team sitting over the cage … their rooting and cheering wasn’t the easiest to listen to,” Lombardo said.

    The jeers of the LMU home crowd provided a spark to start the fire in the Triton’s game. Midway through the third, Clevenger took a hard elbow to the face guarding WWPA MVP Devon Wright. The blow had enough ferocity to knock Clevenger’s tooth through her cheek, and caused the game to be stopped for several minutes while she received medical attention.

    In the midst of this, the LMU crowd applauded the brazen blow and the injury sustained by Clevenger. LMU parents were also standing up and cheering.

    “I don’t remember too much because I was mostly in shock, but I know the crowd was cheering and Larry [Sanders] was yelling, ‘This LMU crowd has real class’ while I was being attended to,” Clevenger said. “I got help from the trainers, but I wanted to get back in the game as soon as possible.”

    Clevenger needed seven stitches to close the wound, but that would have to wait until she finished the game. Clevenger was taped up by the trainers, returned to action, and hopped in on a 6-on-5 attack, striking a blow of her own with the power-play goal to follow Wong’s success.

    “We did a good job to try and fight back,” Sanders said. “I could tell because the other coach [LMU’s John Loughran] was screaming at the referees, trying to challenge anything.”

    The efforts of Clevenger and her teammates didn’t go unnoticed. Along with garnering the runner-up honors for the second year in a row, four Tritons were named to WWPA All-Conference teams. Bantilan-Smith and Lombardo earned first-team honors while Clevenger and Wong were honorable-mention selections.

    Four LMU players earned all-WWPA honors, plus the Lions head coach John Loughran was named WWPA coach of the year for the fourth consecutive year.

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