ASU women's water polo team is entering the 2022 season with high expectations. The Sun Devils are ranked fourth overall in the preseason rankings after finishing 14-12 in 2021.
ASU appeared in the Final Four last season but this is the highest the team has ranked going into the season in program history. For head coach Todd Clapper, his 16th season has the potential to be one of the best he's ever had.
"We can be really good," Clapper said. "The pieces are there to be able to compete for a championship. We've got the people that we need to challenge again. We just need people to grow up a little faster, whether it's freshmen or sophomores, to be able to into a bigger role and fix some things technically aren't at the level they need, but that's what we are practicing for."
The Sun Devils have had plenty of time to practice since they lost to 2021 national champions USC in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament in May 2021.
The team swam between 4,000 and 5,000 meters a day, this fall. The Sun Devils continued to condition outside the pool in the weight room and by running. The team also spent significant time improving their play in five-on-six and six-on-five situations.
Tactically, the team is one of the best offensive squads in the country. They scored 258 goals on 37% shooting in the 26 games last season, went 70-48 in opening sprints, and shot the ball 27 times a game.
The Sun Devil offense lost Dutch national team member Bente Rogge, who scored 40 goals in 2021, but the team will still be loaded with weapons for the new campaign. Graduate student captain Amira Van Buren enters her fifth year with more than 100 goals in her career and was on the 2021 Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches All-American second team.
ASU also has 2021 leading scorer and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation All-Newcomer Team member, sophomore Luca Petovary and senior Blaire McDowell, who won 45 of her 65 sprints last season and was second in steals with 37.
"Our strength lies in our offense," Van Buren said. "We have weapons all over the pool at all times, no matter what line rotation is in. Every single person on this team has their own individual strengths. So we've spent we spent the past couple of weeks tailoring plays and tactics to specific people's strengths."
The team's offense may be electric, but the defensive end is what will make or break the team. The team allowed 220 goals and 226 saves in 2021. Starting goalie Itzahiana Baca saved 44.9% of shots against her, 53 total, in 10 games last season.
"Itzahiana is going to save us a little bit as we're starting to put it together," Clapper said. "There are times where people are out of position on defense and can get lost, and that just takes a little bit more time and some live action."
The Sun Devils bring in a great freshmen class this year to support the squad. Vanda Baksa, Bianca Becerra and Stevilyn Griffin will provide useful depth in the field, while goalies Marie Rudasics and Molly Ostrowski will help back up Baca. Clapper believes they will impact the team immediately.
ASU will host the ASU Cross Conference Challenge this weekend from Friday to Sunday. During that span, the team will play four teams that rank in the preseason top-10.
"It's nerve-racking," Van Buren said. "I still get nervous thinking about playing those games, but it's also really exciting. We have more fun when we play teams that are at our level. It'll be good to see where we're at in the beginning."
Petovary echoed a similar statement to Van Buren, and said the team has been waiting a long time to see the pool again.
"We've all been waiting for this one, basically since last fall," Petovary said. "Starting against these teams is gonna really prepare us for the rest of the season."
For Clapper, this weekend could be the start of a special season for the Devils.
"This team has worked really hard," Clapper said. "Last year's team built that success to put us in fourth, but this is a new team. I think we can be better than that. We just need to focus on putting the pieces together."
With the returning talent and the depth the team now has, the Sun Devils have a shot to take the next step and challenge for the top of women's water polo.
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Walker Smith is a sports editor in the digital department of the State Press. He has previously worked as a reporter on the sports desk and works for Blaze Radio and interned at Big Slate Media in broadcast productions.