The No. 7 Arizona State University water polo team returns to action this weekend to take part in the UCI Invitational beginning Saturday in in Irvine, Calif. The team will open the weekend against No. 11 San Jose State at the Corona Del Mar Pool. The Sun Devils will get underway at 9:15 a.m. PT on Saturday, Feb. 22 The tournament is among the top tournaments throughout the season and arguably is more competitive than the current 10-team NCAA Championship format. Fourteen ranked schools will be in action this weekend, including nine of the top 10 teams in the nation.
SCOUTING THE OPPOSITION
Widely-known as the top tournament of the water polo season with nine of the top 10 ranked schools and 14 ranked schools overall in the field. USC took the 2013 Invitational with a 13-10 upset over No. 1 Stanford. It was the second title for the Trojans who also captured the 2010 title. UCLA also has a pair of titles while Stanford rounds out the field of the only three schools to win the invite and leads the pack with three titles. No school has ever won the title in consecutive seasons. The usual suspects remain at the top of the field: USC No. 1, Stanford No. 2, UCLA No. 3 and Cal No. 4. The Sun Devils open against No. 11 San Jose State, also a fellow member of the MPSF Conference. ASU has won three straight over the Spartans. With a win, ASU would take on the winner of the Stanford-Pacific game and a loss would square the Sun Devils off against the loser of that contest.
FOLLOW THE ACTION
UCI will be providing a live blog of the two days of action but that will only cover matches taking place at UC Irvine and ASU will be playing at the Coronda Del Mar pool on the first day. That being said, the UCI Invite has a home page that will update scores and boxes throughout the day that is available at: http://ucirvinesports.com/sports/w-wpolo/uci_invitational/index14. A downloadable tournament guide is also available through the site. Stay tuned to ASU Water Polo on Twitter (@ASUWaterPolo) and Facebook (Arizona State Water Polo) for updates through out the weekend. Complete recaps of each day will be available at TheSunDevils.com following each day of action.
LAST TIME OUT
The then-No. 10 Arizona State University water polo team took third overall in the UCSD Triton Invitational on Sunday, knocking off No. 11 Loyola Marymount in the consolation final after falling to No. 1 USC in the semifinals. The Sun Devils improved to 6-3 on the season after going 3-1 on the weekend with all three victories coming against teams ranked in the top-20 of the CWPA Coaches Poll. The Sun Devils also took care of business against No. 19 Hartwick (13-4) and No. 20 Santa Clara (19-4) over the course of the weekend.
The Sun Devils have established themselves as one of the elite teams in the country in the last couple years. In the last two seasons prior to 2014, the Sun Devils have compiled a 51-13 record under head coach Todd Clapper. In that time, the team has posted seven All-America honors while earning the first victory over UCLA in program history as well as beating Cal on the road for the first time ever as well. The Sun Devils posted a program-best fourth-place finish in the MPSF Championships and CWPA Final Coaches Poll last season (peaking at a program best No. 3 in the 2013 regular seasons) and have set school records in wins in each of the last two seasons as well.
In head coach Todd Clapper's career, he is 27-20 in all games decided by a single goal and 57-41 in all games decided by three goals or less. In the last three seasons, the Sun Devils are 17-8 in games decided by three goals or less and 9-3 in games decided by a goal. Last season, ASU was 5-0 in games decided by a goal, but that streak came to an end in a tough 12-11 loss to UC San Diego in the season opening UCSB Winter Invite tournament. ASU also dropped a 9-6 decision to UC Irvine in the final game of that weekend and thus two of those eight loss happened in one weekend.
WHO WILL STEP INTO THE SPOTLIGHT?
The ASU program lost two of the greatest Sun Devils to grace the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center to graduation following the 2013 season in Shannon Haas and Alicia Brightwell. The two sit second and third on ASU's all-time scoring list, respectively, and leave a hole to be filled as far as scoring is concerned in 2014. The two combined for 156 of ASU's 351 goals last season (44.4 percent), a figure that isn't hard to overlook. Among the front runners to come in and make an immediate dent in that hole this season is junior Petra Pardi. Among ASU's most improved players in 2013, Pardi had 45 goals on the season to finish third on the team in the category. She had 16 multi-goal games on the season, not far behind Brightwell (21) and Haas (20) for the team lead. Ao Gao had 43 goals on the season and the two-time Olympian is among ASU's most polished all-around players but her strength is in her defense, where she was named an All-American last season.
WHY NOT THE NEWCOMERS?
The Sun Devils welcomed an absolutely stacked class of freshmen to the roster this season and two of them have made their mark right out of the gates for the Sun Devils. Alkistis Benkou currently leads all Sun Devil scorers with 29 goals through nine games this season and fellow fresman Izabella Chiappini is right behind her with 23 goals.The combo has combined for 14 multi-goal games with Benekou logging for or more goals in an impressive four games thus far. The ASU offense has relied heavily on the two youngsters as the duo has combined 53 of ASU's 116 total goals this season (45.7 percent).
KEEVE-IN' IT REAL
Relying on a redshirt freshman at goalkeeper might make even the most stone-faced of coaches flinch a little. But if there's one thing E.B. Keeve didn't do in her first season minding the net for the Sun Devils, it was flinch. Keeve put together perhaps the greatest single season in ASU history from the cage, which is quite the accomplishment considering some of the numbers former great Caylinn Wallace put up in her career. Keeve set the all-time single season saves record with 377, knocking off Wallace's previous best of 346 in 2008. Her 63 percent save percentage on the year is second all-time among goalies with at least 50 saves and first among goalies with at least 200 saves. She also obliterated the school record for saves per game with 12.46 on the season, a mark that paced that MPSF and was nearly two more saves per game better than Wallace's previous record of 10.52. Keeve already has 86 saves in nine games in 2014 and is just slightly below her pace last year at 11.86 saves per game, a number that currently leads the MPSF.
PARDI IN THE USA
In 2014, Petra Pardi has been perhaps ASU's top all-around player in the opening weeks. The junior has 16 goals (third on the team) and paces the squad with 17 assists - the only Sun Devil even in double digits in the category. Pardi set a school record against CSU Monterey Bay with six assists. Her current total is notable as she had just 22 assists period last season and just three as a freshman. Pardi currently leads the team with 33 points on the season. Three times on the 2012 season, Petra Pardi notched five goals in a game - the only freshman to ever accomplish the feat and joining only ASU great Lynlee Smith had ever scored five or more goals in a game on three separate occasions in one season before Pardi. Pardi's 30 goals in 2012 ranked 10th in ASU freshmen history. Pardi was solid in the 2013 season, as her 45 goals finished third on the team behind Brightwell and Haas. Pardi had 67 points on the season, good for fourth on the Sun Devil roster. While she didn't put up gaudy per-game goal tallies in 2013, she remained incredibly consistent, scoring multiple goals in 16 contests on the season.
Anna Kertes established herself as one of the top freshman in the nation with her play in 2012. Kertes' 47 goals were the second-most among freshmen in the conference and tied the second-highest tally in ASU history among freshmen. Kertes showed a new facet to her game as a sophomore as she tallied 28 assists on the season, far surpassing her total season tally of 12 from her freshman season. Kertes matched a career high with four goals in ASU's victory over CSU Monterey Bay and is currently fourth on the team with 13 goals this season while also posting a team-leading 13 steals.
GAO GETTING IT DONE
With two Olympiads and two years of Division I water polo under her belt, Ao Gao could be primed to establish herself as one of the top players in the country as a junior. The Beijing native Gao was almost a silent assassin this season for the Sun Devils last season as she quietly put up one of the most well-rounded seasons in ASU history from the two-meter defender position. Gao, a two-time Olympian for China, had 43 goals on the year while leading the team with 43 assists. The latter was the third-highest single season tally in school history while her 86 total points are eighth. A lock-down defender, Gao limited numerous opponents on the season while forcing 65 steals on the year for the sixth-highest single season total in school history.
IN THE RANKINGS
Following ASU's strong third-place finish at the UCSD Triton Invite, the Sun Devils moved up three positions to No. 7 nationally in the CWPA Poll, a position they remained in despite the off weekend las week.
DEFENSE WINS BALL GAMES
Defense will win you games in just about any sport and water polo is no exception. In 2013, ASU was 26-0 in 2013 when not allowing the opposition to score in double digits and outscored the opposition 351-240 on the year. Additionally, the team had 378 steals on the season (compared to 250 turnovers the prior season), a pattern the team will look to continue in 2014. That streak of wins when not allowing 10 goals ended against UC Irvine in the 2014 opening tournament in a tough 9-6 loss at the UCSB Winter Invite. That being said, ASU is still 6-1 this season when not allowing an opponent to reach 10 goals.
BUT OFFENSE DOESN'T HURT
ASU key to it's recent success has just as much to do with offense as it does with defense. ASU averaged a solid 10.63 goals per game in 2013 and scored in double digits in 22 out of 33 games. The team's 351 goals were not quite on pace to match the 2012 tally (a school record of 376 goals). ASU opened 2014 with some offensive fireworks, including a 23-2 victory over CSU Monterey Bay. The 23 goals were the second most in school history while the 21-goal victory set a new school record for the Sun Devil program. ASU currently is averaging 12.89 goals per game and has 116 total goals this season.
NEW FACES AND BIG EXPECTATIONS
The Sun Devils welcomed an elite signing class to the ranks this season with all four freshmen this season capable of making an impact with the team. Brazilian superstar Izabella Chiappini joined the team in January after cleaning up in Brazil over the past season, representing the internation team at the FINAL World Championships and Junior World Championships. She was named the Brazilian Player of the Year. Alkistis Benekou contributed with three goals for her Greece team as the Junior World Championships. The team was able to make it to medal round and earned a bronze medal following a 7-6 victory over Russia. Stephanie Contreras was the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Tribune Girls Water Polo Player of the Year, leaving Los Altos HS as the most-prolic scorer in the CIF-Southern Section. She scored 141 goals last to finish with a CIF-SS record of 639 goals for a career en route to leading the Conquerors to the division semifinals for the second time in four seasons. Mia Rycraw earned her second first-team All-Area selection in the same area as she helped Walnut HS to a share of second-place in the Hacienda League and a 17-7 record. She was first team All-CIF-Southern Section Division 4 and first team All-Sierra League.
2013 SEASON REVIEW
The No. 3 Arizona State University water polo team fell in the third-place game of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament to end the 2013 season, dropping a 10-7 decision to No. 4 UCLA in Berkeley, Calif. The fourth-place finish was the best in ASU history at the competition. The Sun Devils finished the season with an impressive 26-7 record, setting a new school record for single-season wins. The Sun Devils defeated UCLA in the regular season for the first win over the Bruins in program history while also knocking off Cal in Berkeley for the first road victory against the Bears in program history as well. Alicia Brightwell and Ao Gao each earned second-team All-America honors while Shannon Haas was a third-team selection for the second consecutive season. Redshirt freshman E.B. Keeve earned an honorable mention nod. The four were also named to the All-MPSF Team to round out the season.
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