This weekend the No. 15 UCSB women’s water polo team, which moved up from 16th in the polls after running their record to 8-7 to take seventh place in the Triton Invitational, will travel to Irvine for the Irvine Invitational.
Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, the Gauchos will face some of the toughest competition they have faced all season. All 16 teams in the tournament are ranked in the CWPA Top 20, including the top five teams, Stanford, USC, UCLA and Cal, all of whom are potential opponents for the Gauchos in the four-game tournament.
“We got a pretty good draw,” Head Coach Cathy Neushul said. “We’ve played all of the teams in our bracket. We’ve made incredible progress in our knowledge of the game because we played more games than any other team.”
In fact, UCSB will open the tournament on Saturday against Cal. The Golden Bears are 12-2 on the season, and will likely provide a test unlike any the Gauchos have seen thus far.
“We played them the very first weekend of the season so we have some game film on them,” Neushul said. “They are a team that doesn’t change too much offensively.”
With such a rigorous weekend ahead of them, the Gauchos will need to be at the top of their game, and their stars will really have to shine. Luckily for the Gauchos, they have quite a few. Junior Bryce Winton leads the team with 22 goals and scored more than any other Gaucho in UCSB’s 10-8 win over CSUN in the final game of the Triton Invitational. Junior Kacey Creek is not far behind Winton with 20 goals of her own.
“If you look at our goal production it’s pretty spread out, and goal production is the result of a lot of things,” Neushul said. “The person scoring is usually the beneficiary of those things going right. We’re going to need our whole team.”
Santa Barbara is not without playmakers on defense, either. Junior Shelby Haroldson leads the team with 23 steals in addition to her 27 assists, which is also the best on the squad. As usual, the anchor of the defense will be junior goalie Ruth Milne, UCSB’s all-time saves leader. Milne totaled 41 saves over the course of the last tournament, and had double-digit saves in both of the Gauchos’ wins that weekend.
“[Milne] is the one player we cannot do without,” Neushul said. “She is one of the best goalies in all of college water polo, if not in the nation.”
This weekend is very important for the Gauchos in terms of their standing. Their non-conference record currently ranks third in the Big West, behind UCI and Pacific. A few wins this weekend could move them into position to overtake those teams.
“We’re in a really good situation,” Neushul said. “We don’t start our conference games until very late in the season. It’s really nice because we’ve usually played most of our teams in the conference and we’re getting exponentially better. It’s important for us to hold our position.”
The tournament is set to begin for the Gauchos at 11:30 in the morning on Saturday. The Gauchos’ result against Cal will determine what time their second game of the day will take place and who their opponent will be.