By Troy M. Ortiz
Feet flick and tread beneath the surface, keeping shoulders and arms poised airborne in anticipation of the next move. The goggled, yellow-capped heads contrast with the pool water, chopped white from the turbulence of bodies pumping to stay afloat. Each individual is focused on the opposition’s defense in choreographed unison, searching for a lane to open and exploit. The team shares the tragedy of loss and the thrill of victory. This is the UC Santa Cruz women’s water polo team.
The team ended its season on a high note last weekend after placing third in the nation in Division III. The Slugs’ season ended with an overall record of 13–18 and 10–2 in DIII.
The team was in the top seed going into the annual DIII championships, which took place at Connecticut College May 2 through May 4. Placed in the role of contender and lauded as best in the nation, expectations and anxieties ran rampant for the Slugs.
“We were seeded first going into the tournament, which was a catch-22,” senior captain Kate Simonis. “You go into the tournament thinking, ‘Hey, we are the best team in the nation at this very moment,’ which is a very powerful motivator, yet at the same time it sets expectations up very high.”
A week before the national tournament, players began adjusting their daily routines to mirror East Coast time, moving their daily routine three hours earlier. Bundled in a red-eye flight to Connecticut, thoughts of a national title hung in the air. After arriving early in the morning, the team crammed into one hotel room for morning showers before suiting up.
Overall, the team won its bracket impressively. After celebrating a victory in the quarterfinals, UCSC struggled early against Cal Lutheran in the semifinals, falling behind 6–1. A rally tied the game at 8–8, but a few ill-timed penalty shots in the last few minutes of the game ended the Slugs’ hopes for a win.
“By halftime, we came back strong and were tied,” senior Chelsea Myers said. “Sadly, even though we all played our hardest, there were a couple interesting calls within the last minute and a half, which caused us to lose the game. But it was a great game and we all played our hearts out.”
The loss eliminated Santa Cruz’s hopes of a championship run, but the season was by all measures a success.
“The thing that I remember is what happened next,” Simonis said. “Our coaches let us take showers and afterward told us to remember that we had made it to the big show and knew we could win it and that that in and of itself is a major feat.”Simonis continued.
“It is easy to be on a team that wins everything,” she said. “True team unity and character really shows when you lose something that you want desperately. So we all let out a few tears and then went out to dinner and laughed and focused on the next big feat, securing third place.”
With a renewed sense of focus and determination, the team dominated its next opponent to secure third place. Co-head coach Alan Cima was especially proud of his team’s illustration of sportsmanship in the face of adversity.
“In the always-difficult bronze medal game, we played fantastically and really pounded our opponent,” Cima said. “This year has been great with the team camaraderie, practice ethic and finally a game attitude reflecting what great athletes they are.”
All around, many saw exponential growth of the team and program over those three days of the tournament.
“Maybe we didn’t get first place,” Simonis said. “But thinking that we could is something new. It is only the beginning for Santa Cruz.”