UCSD starts strong, then falters

For the second time this season, the No. 15 UCSD women’s water polo team opened a tournament with a convincing victory only to drop the rest of their slate, earning a 15th-place finish at the Gaucho Invitational, held at UC Santa Barbara from Feb. 25 to Feb 27. The Tritons charged out of the gate with a 7-5 triumph over University of Pacific before falling short in losses to No. 3 Stanford, No. 6 Indiana, No. 16 UC Irvine and No. 19 Princeton.

Kaia Lai

The 1-4 performance now leaves UCSD at 3-9 on the season. With 18 of this year’s 23 competitors nationally ranked, the Gaucho Invitational is considered one of the showcase tournaments for collegiate water polo and, for UCSD, a prime opportunity to tangle with some top-caliber teams.

Unfortunately, the Tritons continued their losing skid to ranked squads, recording their 10th consecutive setback to a top-20 opponent with a 5-1 loss to Princeton on Feb. 27. The Tritons’ tournament finish paralleled their performance at the UCSD Arena Invitational on Feb. 5 and Feb. 6, when they knocked off Hartwick for their lone win over a ranked team this season, only to fall to the rest of their opponents.

“The weekend was tough,” UCSD head coach Larry Sanders said. “We struggled with scoring, and it showed that we need to do some better work. As a coach, I need to better explain the concepts and formations we run in the pool.”

But the poor record couldn’t overshadow the exhibition of depth in the UCSD offense. Ten players notched goals for the Tritons over the three-day competition, including senior driver Courtney Clevenger who had four points. Senior utility Tobi Lyman was right behind with three scores of her own, and senior Jessica Wong nearly dismantled Pacific on her own with a Feb. 25 hat-trick against the Tigers.

On the strength of its offense, UCSD rolled out to a quick 3-0 advantage by the end of the opening frame. But the outburst couldn’t tranquilize the Tigers, who struck back with two quick goals at the beginning of the second quarter to cut the lead to one.

However, the Tritons would post three more goals in the third frame to stave off any comebacks from Pacific. The defense contributed to the effort by holding Mountain Pacific Sports Federation scoring leader Jessica Schroder off the score sheet. Clevenger scored a pair of goals while Lyman and sophomore utility Michelle Perkins each added a goal.

UCSD had a case of deja vu in its next match against Stanford, the same team they faced in the second game of last year’s Gaucho Invitational. Unfortunately for the Tritons, the outcome was also identical as the Cardinal rolled to an 11-3 triumph on the strength of Nancy El-Sakkary’s four goals.

Clevenger notched another goal for UCSD, adding on to scores from junior driver Flynn LaRochelle and freshman two-meter Judy Emaus. Katie Hansen also earned a hat trick for the Cardinal, who would go on to finish third in the tournament.

With the 1-1 opening-day finish, UCSD captured second place in its round-robin group and found itself in a tight match against No. 6 Indiana on Feb 26. After falling behind 2-0 in the first quarter, UCSD fought back with a pair of goals to cut the Hoosiers’ lead to 3-2 at the half.

But UCSD could not find the goals to top Indiana, despite having plenty of opportunities. The Tritons went 1-for-13 on man-up advantages, while the Hoosiers scored four goals in the second half for the win. Sophomore two-meter Britta Nordstrom, freshman utility Jessica Momberg, Perkins and Clevenger all contributed goals in the loss.

“If we had made just a third of those man-ups, we could have won the game. It just shows that we need to be doing a better job with our scoring,” Sanders said.

In the Tritons’ fourth game, UC Irvine put in four goals in the second quarter to gain a 6-2 advantage at halftime and a 7-5 victory over UCSD. The Tritons scored twice while shutting out the Anteaters in the third period, but only managed one point versus the four put up by their opponents before the half. Lyman led UCSD scorers with two goals, while Clevenger notched a point for the fourth consecutive match. Nordstrom and Lauren Woods also scored for the Tritons.

At the end of the long weekend, UCSD found itself pitted against Princeton in the 15th-place match on Feb. 27. The Tritons’ costly errors throughout the first half in handing the Tigers a 4-0 advantage going into the third period.

Sarah Bajorek drew the Tritons a goal closer when she scored with 3:58 left in the third, but the Tigers scored again in the final period to restore their commanding lead.

“We created a lot of unfortunate errors,” Sanders said. “We were the better team but we pretty much gave them their goals.”

The Tritons now look ahead to their biggest matches of the season, a meeting with rivals Loyola Marymount and Chapman. Both games will be held at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.