This weekend, UC Santa Barbara will host the 2011 Big West Championship Tournament for women’s water polo. After finishing the season ranked No. 16 in the nation with a record of 16-11 overall and 3-2 in conference, the Gauchos received the third seed in the tournament and will face sixth-seeded Long Beach State in the second game of the tournament.
[media-credit id=20238 align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]“Long Beach beat Northridge, the two seed, by three goals,” Head Coach Wolf Wigo said. “They’re a dangerous team. It’s going be a dog fight.”
The upcoming match will mark the third time this season that UCSB tangles with Long Beach. The first time the teams met was back in February in UCSB’s first game of the Triton Invitational in San Diego. It resulted in a 5-2 defeat for the Gauchos, their only loss in the four games they played in the tournament. Their second match came just two weeks ago, when Santa Barbara traveled to Long Beach and handed the 49ers an 8-7 loss.
“We’ve learned not to overlook them,” senior utility Christie Clark said. “They’re a tough team. We’ve been practicing all week for them and we’re anxious to show them how much we’ve improved.”
The winner of this year’s tournament will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Every team in the conference will be battling for that bid, and with the level of talent that the conference features, no team is going to have an easy road.
“Every team has a chance to win,” Wigo said. “We’re going to be fighting for every win. Everyone has [the automatic bid] in mind.”
In order to get through the tournament, the Gauchos will need the entire team to play like it was playing in the season’s second half. Prior to March 4, the Gauchos posted a mediocre 10-7 record. But starting with a 14-6 beatdown of St. Francis that day, the Gauchos posted a 10-4 record. Over that period, the Gaucho defense stepped up its play significantly, allowing double-digit goals just twice and holding their opponents to five goals each time.
“As long as all the girls have their heads in the game and we go for the win in every single one, we have the ability to win them all,” senior utility Kathryn Nelson said.
The Gauchos will look to a handful of stars to lead the charge. Nelson, who led the team with 37 steals and 11 field blocks this season, is a key figure on defense. Anchoring the goal behind her will be sophomore Ruth Milne, who started all 30 contests this year, led the conference with an average of 12 saves per game and tallied 289 total saves, surpassing her own single-season school record of 275 from last year.
Nelson, along with senior utility Claire Buchanan, combined for 92 goals to lead the Gauchos’ scoring attack. Buchanan also ended the season on a 10-game goal streak, scoring 21 times. Clark, who finished third in scoring with 29 goals and is currently fourth on UCSB’s all time scoring list with 145, will also be a factor.
“I feel like we’re playing really well,” Wigo said. “All of our key players have been playing great and we’re playing at home, so we definitely have some things going for us.”
UC Irvine, the defending conference champions, received the top seed and a first round bye. The winner of Pacific and UC Davis’ match, which begins today at 3:30 p.m., will meet Irvine at the same time on Saturday. The Gauchos will take to the pool to face off with Long Beach at 5:15 p.m., with the winner playing second-seeded CSU Northridge at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday. All matches will be held in Campus Pool.