The No. 16 UCSB women’s water polo team heads into their final weekend of the regular season set to face off against two conference rivals on the road: No. 19 Long Beach State on Saturday and No. 10 UC Irvine on Sunday. After stumbling last weekend against conference opponent CSU Northridge and then again against Cal Baptist, the Gauchos will look to right the ship and secure a high seed in the upcoming Big West Tournament, which they will host.
“We aren’t too concerned. Everything is going fine,” Head Coach Wolf Wigo said. “We’re playing well and we just want to take it one game at a time.”
In addition to the two losses, UCSB was forced to give up four wins from earlier in the season due to the presence of an ineligible player, dropping their record from 19-10 to 15-10. Though their conference mark will remain at 2-1 and their seeding will not be affected, wins against CSU Northridge, La Verne, St. Francis and Occidental will no longer count toward their record.
“One of the players didn’t pay her tuition” Wigo said. “We only found out when she was kicked out of school and then we self-reported.”
Santa Barbara will look to its stars to help get them back on track this weekend. On offense, senior utility Claire Buchanan has scored in eight straight games (all player stats from the game against Cal Baptist were discarded when UCSB was forced to forfeit) — her longest streak of the season, and has scored 17 goals over that period. Senior guard Kathryn Nelson is on a seven-game streak — her second longest of the season — during which she has found the net 14 times.
“We’re playing two really tough defensive teams this weekend,” Buchanan said. “It’s going to be really important for the other girls to step up and start scoring. We’ve been working on taking outside shots and focusing on [Irvine’s and Long Beach’s] weak goalies. These are our last games on the road, so they’re really important, especially for the seniors.”
Senior utility Christie Clark is also a force on offense. Her 29 goals this season have brought her career total to 145, just seven away from third place on Santa Barbara’s all-time scoring list.
“My focus is entirely on the season at this point,” Clark said. “If the record comes that’s awesome, but I’d be happier with a Big West win or an NCAA win.”
UCSB’s defense is anchored by sophomore goalie Ruth Milne, whose 11.47 saves per game ranks first in the conference and whose 265 saves this season are just 10 away from tying her own single season school record.
“[Ruth] gives the offense a lot of confidence,” Wigo said. “Knowing we have a wall in the gates gives us some leeway and allows us to take some risks that we normally wouldn’t take.”
This will not be the first time this season that UCSB has faced either UC Irvine or Long Beach State. On Jan. 30, the Gauchos suffered a 9-5 defeat at the hands of the Anteaters and dropped a game against the 49ers 5-2 on Feb. 12.. Winning this weekend will not only get the Gauchos some long-sought revenge, but could also secure them the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Although Long Beach is 0-2 in conference so far and does not pose much of a threat to the Gauchos in terms of seeding, a win against them and then against Irvine — who is 2-0 in conference — would at least guarantee them the No. 2 seed behind Northridge, who is 3-0 in conference after beating the Gauchos last weekend.
“The higher seed we have the better schedule,” Wigo said. “If we’re top two we get a bye in the first round, and if we’re No. 3 we have to play the No. 6 seed. So ideally we want to be in the top two, but if we can’t get that we’ll take the third seed.”
Both games are set to start at noon on their respective days. Once Sunday’s game against Irvine is over, the Gauchos will be idle until April 29 — the first day of the Big West Tournament.