Water polo set for 2012 campaign

After a great showing and a seventh-place finish at last year’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Championships and an eighth-place finish nationally, the outlook for this year’s Sun Devil water polo team is looking better than ever. 

As the Sun Devils enter the 2012 season, their expectations seem to be the highest held yet. With returning starters, new additions with experience playing at the highest levels of competition and a depth never had before, the Sun Devils are ranked seventh nationally heading into the season. 

“We are a very talented team; a very deep team. We have a lot of goal scorers, a lot of speed and our goalkeeping is also coming on strong. I like what I see so far,” head coach Todd Clapper said. 

Although about half of the team is new, Clapper emphasized the importance of leadership from returning players such as seniors Mariam Salloum – the top returning goal scorer - and Kelsey White

“They have done a really good job in the fall and have continued to do a good job along with the other captain, Shannon Haas, of passing down the leadership to the rest of the team; helping them along but also holding them accountable.” Clapper said. “I think it’s been really helpful for some of the younger players to adjust and mature quickly, as well as, helping the mid-year arrivals to fit in”

The MPSF has always been a tough conference and this year is no different. The conference holds the top five teams in the nation according to the Collegiate Water Polo Association. San Jose State University is ranked fifth. The University of California-Los Angeles and University of Southern California are tied for third, while the University of California and Stanford rank second and first, respectively. In regards to competing in the toughest conference, Clapper seems to be optimistic.

“With it being the Olympic year there are a couple teams that have lost some players which levels the playing field. We are taking a couple of steps up and a couple of teams at the top may have some holes to fill; so we are set in a pretty good position,” Clapper explained. “Right now, we are training hard and getting better every day.  If we keep this up and focus on improving, it should make for a very exciting and successful season.” 

The Sun Devils return several key components from their 2011 squad and add eighth freshman, four of which are international players. The eight new additions, especially the couple of the international players in Gao Ao (China), Alicia Brightwell (Australia) and Hungarians Petra Pardi and Anna Kertes, have Clapper positive about the team fitting together nicely. 

“They are fitting in very quickly,” Clapper said of Ao and Brightwell, who only joined the team within the last couple weeks. “Even though they are new, they have played in a lot of high-level games and their experience is helping out a ton.”

Ao, an attacker, was a part of the silver medal winning team at the 2007 World Junior Championships. She went on to become one of the top players for the Chinese National Team at the 2008 Olympics Games and earned All-Star Recognition there.  

Also an attacker, Australian Alicia Brightwell has competed in the World University games as well as in 16 games with the Australian Senior Team.

Both Pardi and Kertes have seen time on the Hungarian junior national team that has competed at the Junior World Championships in recent years.  Pardi helped lead her team to a runner-up finish at the 2011 event.

The ASU squad will also welcome just its second local product in school history in Shayly McDonnell out of Mesa, Ariz.  McDonnell was named an All-American in 2008 while competing with the Mesa Water Polo Club and was an accomplished prep swimmer as well.

The team will also see the additions of Mackenzy Fowler (Santa Barbara, Calif.) and Liz Kreek (Bellevue, Wash.).  Fowler was named to the CIF All-tournament team as a senior in 2011 and helped guide her water polo club team to a runner-up finish at the 2011 U.S. Club Championships.  Kreek was an MVP in the Washington Water Polo Club while also earning several honors as a swimmer. 

At the goalie position, ASU will welcome the addition of E.B. Keeve (Naperville, Ill.) and her 6-08.00 wingspan that helped her become a member of the Illinois All-State team in 2010 and 2011.

Last year, the Sun Devils started Ianeta Hutchinson as a true freshman in goal. Hutchinson started and played in 25 of the team’s 26 games, with 171 saves to 213 goals against for a 45 percent save percentage. Her 171 saves rank seventh on Arizona State’s all-time single season list. 

“She’s doing well,” Clapper said. “She came back in the fall coming off of an injury but once that got better she went back into training hard to get her legs back into shape. We expect her to be the starter at the end of this month. “ 

The Sun Devils picked up a second goalie Keeve. A freshman out of Aurora, Ill., Keeve was All-Sectional First Team and a member of the All-State Team in 2010 and 2011.

“E.B. is doing very well and learning a lot.” Clapper said. 

This season will boast a very balanced and deep roster of experienced attackers.  Returners Salloum, White, and Annabelle Carter have put together a great career so far at ASU and after a good fall training season, they are poised to have great senior campaigns.  Also, look for strong production from Amanda Young, who was recruited as a goalkeeper to ASU and was switched to the attacker position last season.  Newcomers Ao, Brightwell, and Kertes bring a lot of speed and offensive prowess to the roster, but more importantly, are doing a great job of handling their defensive responsibilities, as well.   

“This is the first year when we do sprint swim sets that we have a big group that’s finishing in that first leading group; enough to put together a starting group with the fastest people on the team,” Clapper said. “They are turning in some fast times.” 

The team’s speed is also accompanied by a variety of shooters and Clapper emphasized how deadly the Sun Devils can be on the counter attack with this combination. 

Veteran Shannon Haas returns for her third season as a Sun Devil.  

“Shannon has been improving every year that she has been here.  She has been great for us in the past two seasons, but is really focused this season on being a complete player on both ends of the pool,” Clapper said.  “Backing Haas up with be freshmen Shayly McDonnell and Petra Pardi, who both have been training hard and learning a lot.”

Senior Kelsey White returns at the defender position after getting extra experience at the FINA World Championships this past summer.  Last season, this was an area where the Sun Devils didn’t have the depth needed, but have worked on this need by adding Kreek and Pardi to the roster and developing some of the returning players in the offseason to be able to fill in some of the gaps, if needed.  

 “We have many outside shooters in that attacker group that, with strong centers and strong shooters, our front core and our six-on-five should be the best that it’s been,” Clapper explained. “Due to that speed and experience, combined with strong goalkeeping, we are able to be very versatile on offense and defense.”

With such a strong offense, the team is focusing on getting the defense where it needs to be.

“It’s a lot of repetition and we are going to be doing that for a long time,” Clapper said. “We want to create a mentality of defense first and be well-organized in that half of the pool first”

Even with such an optimistic fall, Clapper and the team still aren’t taking their foot off the gas.

“I like what I’ve seen in the past week but we still have a lot to improve on in the next three weeks before going out and playing in a game.”

While the 2012 roster is young, there is certainly no lack of talent.  Coach Clapper feels that his is the best team he has coached as he enters his seventh year heading the Sun Devil program.  The team’s combination of speed and depth will make it a force to be reckoned with at the squad squares off against the top teams in the nation and will certainly be a fun team to watch as the season goes on.  

ASU will host several home matches this season that will welcome national powerhouses No. 2 Cal (March 10) and No. 3 USC (March 24) as well as games against San Diego State (March 3) and Hawai’i and Cal-Baptist (March 14).  The home slate offers fans ample opportunity to come out and see some of the best water polo in the country and see numerous student-athletes who will go on to careers on their respective national teams and appearances in future Olympics. 

The Sun Devils open the season in three weeks at the UC Santa Barbara Tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Jan. 27.  For continued coverage of the ASU water polo program, be sure to stay tuned to TheSunDevils.com.