BLOOMINGTON, Ind. —This Friday, Indiana will begin its road to the 2016 NCAA Tournament a different team than the one that started the season 0-2 in Tempe, Arizona.
Winners of 18 of their last 20, the Hoosiers haven’t dropped back-to-back games since their opening series. In the final weekend of the regular season, they wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the CWPA Tournament, setting them on an advantageous path to their third consecutive CWPA championship final — the winner of which will advance to the NCAA Tournament.
The first round matchup will feature No. 7-seed Brown, an opponent Indiana has fought and defeated twice by an aggregate score of 25-12.
But this one for is the CWPA Championship. And head coach Barry King cautioned his athletes that it is a competition unlike any other.
“You don’t quite understand what this tournament does to people until you’ve played in it,” he said. “Everybody in our league is pointed toward that weekend. You get everybody’s best effort. Even a team you may have beat by seven or eight goals earlier in the year is a completely different squad this weekend than when you saw them the first time.”
After graduating six seniors in the offseason and 700 starts in the past two seasons, the Hoosiers had but one returning player with field experience and 61 starts to her name—senior Candyce Schroeder.
In the beginning, Schroeder said, the young Hoosiers played with a lot of uncertainty. As a lineup that had no experience competing together in an official game, teammates struggled to learn each other’s tendencies in the water.
But it was just a matter of time. Each game offered an exponential increase in the number of starts—and more importantly, in valuable minutes for freshmen and sophomores. Now, a team that was once disjointed plays as unselfishly as any Schroeder has been a part of.
“We’re very team-oriented,” she said. “We’re willing to pass the ball around and look for the best opportunity, and it really shows in our stats. No one really cares who scores as long as we win.”
In a season that runs from January until May, Indiana wants to be playing its best water polo in April—ideal for a team whose progress throughout the season correlated positively with its time in the pool.
The Hoosiers attended to that in their final test, a double-header against Bucknell and No. 21 Hartwick. Indiana took both contests to finish 6-1 in conference behind only 7-0 Michigan, who it will advance opposite of in hopes of avenging an 11-8 loss to the Wolverines in the CWPA Tournament final.
Schroeder and sophomore Kelly Matthews capped off the regular season with 11 goals apiece, including a program single-game record seven goals by Schroeder against the Bison. With her team down 2-0 early and the two-seed in the conference tournament on the line, she wouldn’t allow it go any farther.
She took the game into her own hands, and the Hoosiers were better for it.
“She’s always been a stone-cold killer that way,” King said. “She understands the gravity of the game. Some other times this year she’s had to do a lot more facilitating and creating opportunities for other people. She’ll be a little more selfish now, which is a good thing for us.”
Primed for another deep tournament run, the Hoosiers have confidence and momentum on their side. But for Indiana to confect those elements into a CWPA Championship, the responsibility will fall first on its seniors, such as Schroeder and goalkeeper Mary Campbell, to prepare the underclassmen for the intensity they’re likely to face.
After that, it’s up to the freshmen to respond.
“The groups that tend to falter in this tournament are the ones that their youngsters don’t respond,” King said. “They have to answer that level that this tournament invokes from pretty much everybody.”
But these are different youngsters than the ones that commenced the year with no collegiate experience. They’re smarter, freshman Kate Pipkin said. They’re comfortable in their roles. And after four months of putting it all together, they feel ready to take on anyone in the CWPA.
“It seems surreal, especially because it feels like yesterday we were playing at ASU in our first tournament,” Pipkin said. “We’re almost done. We’ve worked our butts off this entire to create a team that is capable of taking the No. 1 seed Michigan. I think it’s going to be very action filled and very emotional weekend, because we’re going to push through and try to make it to the final level NCAAs.”
Swimming news courtesy of Indiana Water Polo.