Faced with its lowest ranking all year, the #12 UCSB women’s water polo team heads south this Saturday to sprint with #8 San Diego State at 10 a.m. and #15 UC San Diego at 3 p.m. This weekend’s games are must-wins for the Gauchos (13-14 overall, 3-7 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) with just one final game against #1 USC before the conference championships in less than two weeks.

Since the loss of star defender junior Aimee Stachowski during play in Hawaii over spring break, the team has gone 1-6, ending a five game skid just last weekend against 18th-ranked Cal State Northridge. Stachowski is undoubtedly a valuable asset to the team with eleven goals, five assists and 18 steals on the season. According to teammates, junior center Sarah Kovach and junior utility ZiZi Clark, Stachowski may see minimal playing time this weekend.

“She’s in our most important defensive position and I think she’s going to play a little,” Clark said. “Just having her in the pool will give our team confidence.”

Head Coach Danielle Altman said her team is prepared for Saturday’s games and that a busy schedule over the break may have contributed to the Gauchos’ struggles of late. According to Altman, the lack of available practice time gave the team little chance to adjust to the zone defense they would have to use in light of Stachowski’s absence.

Prior to playing Northridge, the team had some time to practice where they changed from the man-to-man defense they played in all season, to the zone defense that better suits the team without Stachowski. Kovach said the zone allows for the team’s apparent cohesiveness to flourish and may be more effective against high scoring teams like San Diego State.

“If we play as a team we’ll have a better chance to succeed,” Kovach said. “Our main goal is to stop them from scoring.”

The Gauchos have split their two games with UC San Diego and the Aztecs in 2006. UCSB defeated the Tritons by one and lost 6-5 to San Diego State during a tumultuous February where more than half of their opponents where ranked teams.

“We’re more focused on San Diego State since they’re ranked higher. If we go out there the way we’ve been practicing we’ll be fine,” Kovach said.

So far this season, the Gauchos’ arsenal in the pool has come by way of the defense, but with their best defensive weapon on the bench, their offense must step up to the task this Saturday. Senior utility Jen D’Anna leads the team with a career high 42 goals on the season with four clutch scores coming last weekend in a one-goal win over the Matadors. UCSB will also look for senior attacker Alaina Whitaker – whose 40 goals this season are second only to D’Anna – to contribute this weekend.