USC Women’s Water Polo Aims To Add To National Title Count In 20th Straight NCAA Trip

Courtesy: USC Athletics

USC has secured its 20th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, locked in for action at the 2024 National Collegiate Women’s Water Polo Championship, held May 10-12 at Spieker Aquatics Complex in Berkeley, Calif. USC (18-8) opens the 2024 NCAA Tournament at 2 p.m. PT on Friday (May 10) against No. 4 seed Stanford (18-6). In the Opening Round game on May 8 at 5 p.m., Biola (14-16) will play Wagner (29-4) for the right to play top seed UCLA (23-0) at 12 p.m. on May 10. The other quarterfinal matchups are set: No. 2 seed Hawai’i (22-3) takes on Princeton (23-6) at 4 p.m., while No. 3 seed California (17-6) faces Fresno State (21-7) at 6 p.m. Winners advance to May 11 semifinal rounds, with the 2024 national championship bout set for 7 p.m. on May 12. The USC women are looking to capture their eighth national championship.

2024 TROJANS    
USC has been a top-five team all season and finished in a three-way tie for second place in the MPSF regular season. Under the direction of head coach Casey Moon for the first season, USC had five Trojans earn All-MPSF honors this year, including first-time honorees Julia Janov (First Team), Alejandra Aznar (Second Team), Rachel Gazzaniga (Honorable Mention and All-Newcomer Team) and Ava Stryker (All-Newcomer Team). Aznar and goalie Carolyne Stern are USC’s returning All-Americans for a 2024 Trojan team averaging 12.2 goals per game and allowing 7.8 goals-against per game to date. Freshmen Gazzaniga and Stryker lead the team in scoring with 49 and 48 goals, respectively, with Janov and Aznar next in line with 45 and 44 each, respectively. USC’s last NCAA title was won in 2021, when current Trojans Stern and Brooklyn Aguilera were sophomores and Abigail HendrixHannah Meyer and Janov were true freshmen. USC has reached five consecutive NCAA finals entering this 2024 event.

NCAA quarterfinals and semifinals will stream live on, and the NCAA Championship game will be televised on ESPNU and streamed on ESPN+. Live stats will be available through 6-8 Sports.

USC opened up 2024 tied at No. 1 in the national rankings. After the first week of action, the Trojans stood alone at the top. In the latest round of rankings (released May 1), USC currently stands at No. 5 in the nation.

USC was the No. 1 seed in last year’s MPSF Tournament, which was held in San José, Calif. After a first-round bye, the Trojans faced No. 4 seeded Cal in the semifinals, taking down the Golden Bears 16-10 to move into the title match. There, USC went up against No. 2 seeded Stanford, which won the tournament championship with a 12-7 win over the Trojans. USC’s Paige Hauschild and Tilly Kearns were named to the 2023 MPSF All-Tournament Team.

NCAA NOTES        
Winners of seven previous national championships, USC holds a 41-14 all-time record in NCAA tournaments. USC’s first national title came in 1999 before the NCAA sponsored women’s water polo. In 2004, USC posted the first-ever undefeated season on the way to capturing the 2014 NCAA title. USC’s third title came in 2010 — the last time the Trojans swept the MPSF coach, player and newcomer awards — in a championship won over Stanford. Three years later in 2013, the Trojans topped the Cardinal in tripe sudden-death overtime — the longest NCAA final in history — to claim a fourth national championship for USC. In another three years, USC was back on top once more, posting a second undefeated season en route to the 2016 NCAA Championship in another epic battle against Stanford. The 2018 campaign brought USC its sixth crown in a defensive 5-4 win over Stanford at the Trojans’ Uytengsu Aquatics Center. In 2021, USC overpowered UCLA with an 18-9 final win that set an NCAA record for goals scored and margin of victory in a final and secured USC’s seventh national championship.

This year marks USC’s 20th consecutive NCAA appearance and 20th overall. The Trojans have a chance to register the university’s 114th NCAA team championship and 137th team national championship with a run to a 2024 tourney title. Since 2010, every women’s NCAA title has been won by either USC or Stanford. USC has reached a total of 13 NCAA finals, including the past five title matches.

This year’s National Collegiate field includes six automatic qualifiers from conference championships and three at-large teams. Seven teams qualify directly to the championship field, and the remaining two teams will compete in an Opening Round game on May 8. Earning automatic berths this year are UCLA (MPSF), Princeton (CWPA), Fresno State (Golden Coast), Hawai’i (Big West), Biola (WWPA) and Wagner (MAAC). This year’s at-large teams are California, Stanford and USC — all out of the MPSF.

Last year, the Trojans were the No. 2 seeds with a 26-2 record after a second-place finish in the 2023 MPSF Tournament. After opening 2023 NCAA competition with a 12-9 win over Fresno State, USC beat Princeton 18-8 in the semifinals. That brought up the NCAA title match between USC and Stanford, which saw the Cardinal take the trophy with an 11-9 decision. At the end of the tournament, Paige Hauschild and Tilly Kearns were named to the NCAA All-Tournament First team, and Carolyne Stern and Bayley Weber were named to the All-Tournament Second Team. USC finished the season with a 28-3 overall record — the Trojans’ 24th season with 20 or more wins in its 29 years of existence.

As the Trojans head into postseason play, USC’s balanced scoring charge is led by Rachel Gazzaniga with 49 goals, followed by Ava Stryker with 48, Julia Janov with 45 Alejandra Aznar with 44. In all, 17 Trojans have scored at least one goal to date, including six with their first goals as Trojans. Defensively, three USC goalies have factored into the 18-8 mark, led by senior Carolyne Stern. Stern is averaging 8.1 saves per game thanks in part to her five double-digit save outings this year. USC’s other two goalies — Laine Hourigan and Jada Ward — are in their second season of action as Trojans. Overall, the group averages 7.9 saves per game to anchor a Trojan defense giving up 7.8 goals per game. USC has outscored opponents 317-202 so far, while holding teams scoreless in 15 different periods to date.

Two Trojans are on the rise in the USC history books with their work this season. Goalie Carolyne Stern has moved up to No. 4 all-time among USC goalies, now holding 571 career saves after passing up Olympian Tumua Anae’s 534 saves from 2007-10. Alejandra Aznar, meanwhile, has cracked the top-20 and is up to No. 18 all-time in career scoring with 143 goals.

International experience has been key to USC’s development of versatile players. The USA pipeline has crafted a number of outstanding Trojans — past, present and future, including Team USA’s Emily Ausmus, who deferred her freshman enrollment at USC in order to train for the 2024 Olympics. Many other U.S. pipeline products will be capped up for USC this season, including Morgan NethertonRachel Gazzaniga and Ava Stryker, who competed for the USA at Junior Worlds this past summer. Abigail HendrixMaggie JohnsonMeghan McAninchHannah MeyerCarolyne SternHonnie Vandeweghe-O’Shea and Isabel Zimmerman also have capped up for the USA at the Youth level. Outside of the United States, several returning Trojans have also gathered international experience with other nations — Alejandra Aznar (Spain), Julia Janov (Slovakia), Emma Lawson (Canada), Fanni Muzsnay (Hungary), Jelena Sarac (Serbia).

USC is without one decorated Trojan international for 2024, as Olympian and Cutino Award finalist Tilly Kearns is training with Australia for the 2024 Olympic Games. That leaves a void at the center position for this season, but head coach Casey Moon has tapped into his handy toolkit in order to adjust. In addition to the proven work done at set by senior Hannah Meyer, Moon has eyes on incorporating newcomer national teamer Rachel Gazzaniga along with sophomore Alex Bonaguidi for increased action, with new addition Madison Haaland-Ford also in the mix at the center slot.

ON THE ATTACK            
In the field, USC is fueled by an arsenal of attackers along with deft defenders to go along with its center play. Molly GladAbigail HendrixEmma LawsonJelena Sarac and Honnie Vandeweghe-O’Shea are tabbed for duty on the defensive end, while also set to take aim offensively from the perimeter. USC’s onslaught of attackers features newcomers Meghan McAninch and Ava Stryker to go along with veterans Alejandra AznarJulia Janov and Fanni Muzsnay, who combined for 88 goals last season. As freshmen, attackers Maggie Johnson and Morgan Netherton pinned up a combine 34 goals. All versatile tools in Moon’s box of tricks, the USC attacking core also includes Brooklyn AguileraHannah CarverCaitlin CohenSally McCarthy and Isabel Zimmerman.

BACK IN ACTION            
USC boasts nine returners from USC’s 2023 NCAA roster, which reached the NCAA final in the program’s 19th straight trip to the postseason to finish with a 29-3 overall record. Maggie Johnson and Morgan Netherton were freshmen on that squad, bringing back key lessons learned along with the other seven members of the returning group that was on deck for that NCAA journey — Brooklyn AguileraAlejandra AznarMolly GladAbigail HendrixHannah MeyerCarolyne SternHonnie Vandeweghe-O’SheaJada Ward and Isabel Zimmerman.

CAPTAIN’S SALUTE            
Goalie Carolyne Stern is joined by Julia Janov and Maggie Johnson as team captains for 2024. All were instrumental in USC’s NCAA run last season, and Janov and Stern are now entering their fourth season playing together. That combined experience and leadership ability gives coach Moon the utmost confidence in his three captains, who are charged with setting the tone and the course for the Trojans in 2024.

CAGE FIGHTERS            
A 2023 All-American, Carolyne Stern enters her final season between the pipes. She’s been a steadying and reliable force in the cage for USC, thanks in part to the talented younger goalies in the water with her every day. Sophomore Jada Ward and redshirt sophomore Laine Hourigan both served as outstanding backups for Stern last year, and they are joined by two true freshmen this season in Anna Reed and Lauren Schneider to round out a formidable goalkeeping corps for the 2024 Trojans. In her first weekend of work, Stern surged to now rank as USC’s No. 6 all-time saves leader, now with 403 career saves to her name as a Trojan.

LAST SEASON            
In 2023, USC went 28-3 overall in a season that saw the Trojans make a 19th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. USC posted a perfect 6-0 mark in MPSF competition before taking second place in the MPSF Tournament and later reaching a fifth consecutive NCAA final, where USC lost to Stanford. At the close of the season, Tilly Kearns was selected as a finalist for the Peter J. Cutino Award for the second straight season. She also was a First Team All-American along with Paige Hauschild and Bayley Weber. They were joined by fellow All-Americans Carolyne Stern (Honorable Mention) and Grace Tehaney (Honorable Mention). Head coach Marko Pintaric was named MPSF Coach of the Year for the third consecutive season, and Weber was named MPSF Player of the Year. •

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