April 28, 2006

SCU Women Make Strides in Water Polo

April 28, 2006

By Dylan Hernandez
The San Jose Mercury News

The Santa Clara women's water polo team is in only its sixth season at the Division I level. It has half of one scholarship to give, and nearly half of its roster spots are occupied by players from the Bay Area, not exactly the sport's most fertile ground.

But the Broncos might be on the verge of a breakthrough.

Today, they begin play in the 12-team Western Water Polo Association championships in San Diego, where the winner is guaranteed a place in the NCAA tournament. Santa Clara enters ranked No. 16 in the country, its highest ranking ever, and seeded third. A 23-7 record also is the best in the program's history.

The Broncos open against the winner of a first-round contest between Sonoma State and Colorado State. They have won all three meetings with Sonoma State this season, and defeated Colorado State in February.

``Our first game is a game we should win,'' said Keith Wilbur, in his fourth season as SCU's coach. ``This is the first year we can say that.''

The program has come a long way. Women's water polo became a club sport at Santa Clara in 1996. It gained varsity status in 1999, but at the non-scholarship Division III level. In 2000, the Broncos finished fifth in the Division III rankings. The next year, they moved up to Division I.

Wilbur, a Menlo Park native who played for Princeton and the U.S. national team, came aboard in 2003. He coaches both the men's and women's teams.

Building a program from the ground up, essentially, has not been easy. Money has been a challenge. The Broncos have one half-scholarship for women's water polo -- it is divided among eight players -- whereas the NCAA maximum for scholarships is eight. That forced Wilbur to recruit locally.

``Southern California is the hotbed of water polo,'' Wilbur said. ``But Northern California has had good water polo for a long time. We don't find too many blue-chip players, but there are a lot of good players who get overlooked.''

Wilbur also noted that the club system in the area has been growing. Many players on his team had already crossed paths by the time they came to Santa Clara.

Drivers Katie Radvanyi and Alanna Simpkins were teammates at Soquel High. They remember playing against Lindsey Bacolini, a utility player from St. Francis High in Mountain View. Goalkeeper Kristin Barnes and driver Andrea Evans played together at Saratoga High.

Heading into this season, the Broncos had come up short against top-flight opposition, no matter how closely they played them. That changed March 18 with a 12-4 victory over 18th-ranked Princeton. The Broncos were not ranked at the time.

``We finally realized how good we were,'' said Bacolini, who leads the Broncos with 48 goals.

An even bigger triumph would follow. At the Davis Shootout on April 9, the Broncos defeated Southern California power UC-San Diego for the first time, 12-11 in overtime.

But they want more.

``We really want to be in the championship game,'' Radvanyi said of the WWPA tournament.

Wilbur said, ``We could win it. Things have to happen right for us, but it can happen.''