Heading into the postseason, No. 4 ASU women's water polo looks to improve

The Sun Devils, having success on both offense and defense this season, look to sharpen all their skills

With most teams across the country gearing up for their respective conference tournaments, the No. 4 ASU women’s water polo team has its eyes set on improving on both offense and defense.

Over the 2017 season, the Sun Devils have outscored their opponents 237 to 153 points. While their most recent results don’t reflect stellar scoring, ASU has four players who have passed the 20-goal mark and three who have scored 30 or more goals.

ASU is led by Lena Mihailovic, the junior attacker out of Serbia has contributed 41 goals this year – an amazing improvement from her first two seasons where she scored 27 and 28 respectively. Mihailovic is helped by junior Alkistis Benekou and sophomore Maud Koopman who each have provided over 35 goals in the 2017 season. 

Erick Fowler | The State Press

The Sun Devils would not be as successful in the water, however, without junior Mia Rycraw. Rycraw, who has been an anchor for the team on defense, believes that the team can still build on its skills.

“I definitely think we have the potential to improve our defense and offense a lot more,” Rycraw said. “I think we’re realizing our potential as a team.”

In the recent weeks, the Sun Devils have fallen to two top-five opponents in USC and UCLA by a margin of seven points or more. However, the team has been able to hold their own on defense against other top programs like Cal and Michigan.

“We can take that next step and elevate even more to compete and eventually win NCAA Championships,” Rycraw said.

For senior Stephanie Contreras, these final games are the last of her Sun Devil career, and she is doing everything to soak it all in. Contreras said one of the more difficult techniques the team has worked on recently is pressing.

“We joke a lot that this month is pressing season,” Contreras said. “A lot of the teams are in high press, and most of us like to back down and get scared of the high press, but in practice we’ve been practicing a lot and we’ve seen a lot of improvements.”

One person Contreras said has improved the most is sophomore PJ Allin. Contreras said there used to be a time where Allin would back down and let Contreras constantly push her, now Allin has more confidence. Despite the aches they receive in practice, everyone on the team has improved on their pressing techniques.

“Honestly, that’s gotten a lot better for all of us,” Contreras said.

As for head coach Todd Clapper, reaching the NCAA Tournament is all about taking things week by week. Following their final regular season game on Saturday, April 15 against San Jose State, the Sun Devils will have two weeks to prepare for the first round of the MPSF Championship game.

“Right now for us a lot of it is the separation between us and those right now ahead of us in the national rankings,” Clapper said. “It’s the defensive pressure they bring and the counterattack that results from that pressure and so those are the difference makers.”

The Sun Devils have experienced defensive pressure against USC, Stanford and most recently UCLA this past weekend – all games in which ASU was defeated.

While ASU has been able to combat these defenses at the beginning of these matches, it’s a common thread that appears in all of their losses.

“There's a general theme of what are we doing to break that pressure on offense and how are we covering up the counter on defense,” Clapper said.

Clapper said that the team is still working hard each and every day to reach its goals. They’re not only physically engaged, but mentally into what they’re doing. Clapper said he’s encouraged. Overall, the team is ready and prepared to finish the season out victorious.

“Everyone’s really energetic and enthusiastic about what we’re doing every day,” Clapper said. “We’re in the right mindset and physically we’re in a really good position to put us in a position to win.”

The Sun Devils have lost their previous two matches and hope to turn things around Saturday, April 15, at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center, where they will play their final regular season game against No. 16 San Jose State University at 1 p.m.

Reach the reporter at klbroder@asu.edu or follow @KellyB1459 on Twitter.

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