Pullman, WA -- It was a tense final minute and a half with only one goal separating the teams. But the University of Washington Women's Water Polo Club was able to hold off the University of Oregon, downing the Ducks, 7-6, to win the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Northwest Division title on Sunday, at Washington State University in Pullman. The win secures their first berth to the National Championships since 2003, where the Huskies will square off against the 15 other best collegiate club teams throughout the country. This year's Championships will be held at the University of California, Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, California on May 6-8th.
The Huskies finished 10-1 in the division and will hold the #8 national seed in Santa Cruz. After going 3-8 the year before and back to back 5th place finishes in 2015 and 2014, it'd be fair to say no one saw this coming...well except for the Huskies.
"Winning the Northwest Division title has been an accumulation of a year and a half of hard work and determination from both the team and coaches," said co-captain and nominee for division MVP, Danielle Flanagan (#4, Menlo Park, CA). "We put everything we had into this past weekend and it paid off."
So what changed?
As head coach Rudy Ramirez says, It all began with a shift in culture and having some pretty amazing people at the core of the team.
"I remember sitting down with team leadership when I first came to the program," coach Ramirez recalls. "And what I saw was an enthusiastic, talented group of ladies that wanted to play hard and be competitive in a very tough division. So we agreed to a change in team philosophy, and we created a culture that at its core was to encourage each and every single person to put up the best effort that they were capable of producing. That would be our measure of success and if we stayed true to it, then the wins would follow."
The Huskies finished the first CWPA tournament of the season 3-1, suffering their only division loss to Oregon. They then went 4-0 in their second tournament which marked the first time they had gone perfect in a CWPA tournament since 2008. The accumulative record of 7-1, gave the Huskies the #2 seed in the division championships and would lead to their first round matchup against #7 seed, the University of Oregon "B" team. UW had previously beat them 11-5 and 12-6.
Despite, two wins against them earlier in the season, the Huskies took nothing for granted, and came out swinging with Mary-Elizabeth Ward (#6, San Rafael, CA) firing 3 goals in the first 4 minutes of the match. Kellie MacPhee (#2 Encinitas, CA) adding another off a counterattack to finish the first quarter 4-0. The Dawgs defense continued to dominate in the second quarter, as they held the Ducks to 0 goals in the first half. Danielle Flanagan and Elizabeth Lipps (#13, Menlo Park, CA) added one each, as well as Mary-Elizabeth Ward added another goal off a power-play earned by Jalene Weatherholt (#17 San Jose, CA). Score at half 6-0.
The Oregon offense began to break-through, adding two goals making the score 8-2 going into the 4th quarter. But it wasn't enough as the Huskies defense continued to smother any Oregon offense leading to a final score of 10-3 with Jayde Desprez-Lin (#7, Berkeley, CA) adding the final tally. Jalene Weatherholt was player of the game with her 1 block, 1 steal and 2 ejection earned performance. She shut down every 2-meter attempt to get the offense going and was the leader of the Huskies dominate defense.
The win would conclude the Dawgs games for the day, and lead to the semifinal matchup against conference perennial powerhouse, Portland State University, the following morning. UW previously beat them 13-5.
The Huskies, knew PSU would come at them hard in a matchup that had the division championship game at stake. And true to form, the Viking played a physical game, and didn't allow much from the Huskies offense in the first quarter. The Vikings kept the Huskies scoreless while also netting one at 3:43 to end the quarter 0-1. But Danielle Flanagan soon found her rhythm in center, and netted one at 3:15 in the second quarter to tie it up. The Huskies continued to "lead through defense" which fed their aggressive counterattack, allowing Lacy Chun (#11, Hau'ula, HI) to net one after an assist from Mary-Elizabeth Ward. But Portland State answered back to make it 2-2 with 10 seconds left in the second quarter.
Flanagan jumpstarted the offense two minutes in the third, with another shot from center after a great assist from Jaron Reed (#15 Edmonds, WA). But the Vikings once again answered back to tie it 3-3 with less than 3 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter. The physicality of the game seemed to be working against the Huskies. But, the goal would be the last time the Vikings would score.
Flanagan answered with another one from center as did Jalene Weatherholt off the counterattack to end the third quarter 5-3. Just twenty seconds into the 4th quarter Flanagan scored another to mark the game 6-3. But a penalty called against Kellie MacPhee led to a scary moment for the Dawgs, with PSU's leading scorer, #8 Brooke Learmouth, taking the penalty shot. However, Sierra Anderson blocked the shot, and was followed with a UW timeout to allow the players to settle down and continue their rhythm.
PSU followed with their own timeout, which amounted to another defensive stop by the Huskies that directly fed their counterattack. However, desperate for goals, the Vikings began to leave two behind on the UW side of the pool. UW saw this and quickly called another timeout to prevent the open counterattack. After another possession change and a close shot from PSU, UW once again called a timeout with :28 seconds left on the clock. This gave the Dawgs a chance to catch their breath from a close and physically challenging game. The quick break worked, as the Huskies sealed their berth to the championship game with a post in shot from Jaron Reed, ending the match 7-3.
Danielle Flanagan was named player of the game for her 4 ejections earned, 4 goal performance against a very determined opponent. Defense was once again outstanding as the Huskies, for the second game in a row - allowed 0 goals off the power-play and 0 from penalty shots.
Due to tournament scheduling, the Huskies would have less than 3 hours to prepare for their championship matchup ,while the #1 seed University of Oregon hadn't played since the previous evening. But if anything, this along with being the underdog, fueled the Huskies for the game they had been preparing for all season.
The Huskies once again came out swinging against Oregon, as they put two in the back of the net in the first two minutes of the match and stunned the ducks. One off the power-play earned by Flanagan and converted by Ward. And another by Flanagan out of center.
Asked coach Ramirez what he said to them before the game to have them so fired up, he responded, "We huddled up and I told them, 'Play with your heart on your sleeve. Play like it's the last time you're ever going to play, play like you don't care what the final score is...Just play to the best of which you are capable of doing and play for the person next to you.' I don't think I really needed to say much to get them motivated and ready for our opponent."
The Ducks were able to end the quarter with a goal making it 2-1 after a perfect shot found its way in the cage from #6, Sophie Gemelas. But the Huskies once again came out aggressive with another ejection earned by Flanagan and another conversion by Ward. Flanagan then scored again to make it 4-1. The Ducks adjusted and began to drop on the dominate 2-meter player. Forcing them to leave Nicole Sargent (#5, Arcadia, CA) wide open to fire it in, making it 5-1.
At this point, the underdog Huskies had to start believing they could pull this off. But you can never count the Ducks out, especially after last year's championship. Down by 7 goals, the Ducks came back and took the game into overtime to win over Portland State. So the Ducks responded with a goal from #9 Brett Higgins and another from Gemelas, and then another from Gemelas to end the half 5-4, Huskies.
But the break seemed to help the Dawgs, as they redoubled their efforts on defense. Assistant Head Coach, Gregory Mercer, along with Assistants Laura Rudolph and Stephanie Curran, were pulling players aside to talk to them about their one-on-one matchups while Head Coach Rudy Ramirez and Assistant Alex Hart reemphasized the defensive game plan. The third quarter came and went with great defense and the score remained 5-4.
The fourth quarter opened up with the Ducks finally tying it 5-5 (#2 Emily England) with a rare defensive miss from the Huskies. But this would be the closest, Oregon would get, as Jaron Reed and Danielle Flanagan answered right back, :15 seconds later with a perfect post up and in to make it 6-5. The Huskies would go on to remain near-perfect on the power-play opportunities and covert once again to make it 7-5, this time from Lacy Chun with 5:17 left in the game.
But the Ducks continued to push and made a great drive-in shot from #18 Kathryn Peterson. The Ducks then came right back with another counterattack leaded to an ejection earned against #2 Kellie MacPhee. But if the Huskies have shown anything this tournament, it's that they make it impossible to score from the power-play and once again the Ducks were denied with the score remaining at 7-6, Huskies.
Oregon wasn't done yet. with :48 seconds left in the game they fueled a 2 on goalie counter attack, but Sierra Anderson, (#1, Bellevue, WA) was waiting and sprinted 7 meters out to inch past the field players hands and secure the ball; in what could be called the play of the game. The Huskies ran out the shot clock to leave only :11 seconds remaining. Oregon called its final timeout.
It what can only be the most intense :11 seconds of the season, the Huskies remained calm and put their best defense forward, pressing without allowing a single foul to be called. This forced the Ducks to make a deep hail mary shot only to be batted away from the cage by Anderson. And just like that, the Huskies were going to their first national championships in 13 years after a 7-6 win against the University of Oregon.
The Huskies were ecstatic, even throwing in Head Coach, Rudy Ramirez, into the pool.
"I never thought that we could go this far," remarked a very excited co-captain, Elizabeth Lipps. "We've had the skilled and smart players all along but it took our awesome coaches and team leaders to really organize and shape our team into what it is today. As our coach has continually said, 'All it takes is to show up.' I think our team wanted it and wanted it bad. It is an honor to finally win the division with a team like this! We ultimately just love to play together!
The unsung hero of the match was Jalene Weatherholt, who limited the Duck's top-scoring player from the previous two games, to 0 goals allowed. But the player of the game was goalie, Sierra Anderson, with her 15 save effort and steal of the game, to propel the Huskies to the win and a national championships berth.
"Sierra was outstanding all weekend long, but was just absolutely phenomenal in the championship game," stated Assistant Head Coach, Gregory Mercer. "To remain calm under the intense pressure, and stay focused the entire time to save us over and over again, thats shows her character and talent through and through. Very proud of her and very proud of this team's defense."
Team veteran, Lacy Chun added, "Every player on our team was vital to this win. Without the commitment and support everyone exhibited throughout the season, we would have never developed into the multifaceted team we are."
Case in point, their team-first defense approach allowed 0 goals from the power-play all tournament and only allowed 12 goals against 24 by the Dawgs.
Now the Huskies will be focused on strongly representing the Northwest Division amongst the intense competition at the CWPA Collegiate Club National Championships. With the #8 seed, they will be playing the #9 seed University of Virginia from the Atlantic Division in their opening match on Friday, May 6th at 5:10pm.
You can help the Huskies get to Santa Cruz by buying a team shirt or by making a tax-deductible donation directly to the program. Any amount helps and every dollar will go directly to making sure that any player can go regardless of financial situation.