ASU water polo came into the 2022 season with the highest preseason ranking in school history, No. 4 and with high expectations, but the Sun Devils fell out of the gates, losing all four of their games in the opening weekend at home.
After starting 0-4, the team has bounced back to a 6-6 record after just over a month of play. This is still far from where the Sun Devils want to be at the halfway point in the season. However, ASU has made considerable strides forward after its opening weekend debacle.
During the ASU Cross Conference Challenge, the Sun Devils' rustiness and lack of preparation showed when they faced four top-10 teams in UCI, Fresno State, Cal, and Michigan. Three of those games were decided by three goals or fewer, outside of the game against Cal, when the team lost by 10 goals.
“Obviously, we were disappointed,” said head coach Todd Clapper. “Three of those games were close enough games that we always felt like we had a chance to win it. We and the athletes have high expectations of where we want this team to be. It was hard to not be closer to that at that point.”
There was a multitude of reasons why the first weekend wasn’t successful for the Sun Devils, but their offense was one at the top of the list. Of the 114 shots taken through the four games, only 33 of them found the back of the net.
Since that first weekend, the offense has started to come together. In the eight games since the first tournament, the Sun Devils have scored over 10 goals in all but two of their matches, which were losses to No. 2 Stanford and No. 4 Cal.
“When we looked at the first game, we generated a lot of opportunities offensively, but failed to put them away,” Clapper said. “As we are playing more games, some people are getting more confident shooting. We’ve seen people pass the ball better and handle a press defense better.”
In a team loaded with offensive weapons such as graduate student and captain Amira Van Buren, the hardest part hasn’t been getting the opportunities to shoot, it’s been taking the shot once players get the open look.
“There’s too much selflessness,” Van Buren said. “There needs to be more selfishness. People want to pass the ball too much. Once we get better at taking the moments that are given to us and not trying to pass the ball on to somebody else, we're gonna be unstoppable.”
Among the Sun Devils, no one has been more unstoppable this season than freshman Vanda Baksa. The Hungarian leads the Sun Devils with 28 goals, with a 50.9% shooting percentage. She also leads the team in assists with 19 through the first 12 games.
“Vanda’s experience level in the game is really high coming in,” Clapper said. “She was playing for one of the top four clubs in Europe for a long time, so she has a really sharp eye for the game.”
The duo has a combined 14 goals and four assists. Van Buren is second on the team with 18 goals, closely followed by sophomore Luca Petovary, who has 16 goals.
The Sun Devils' overall defense has been improving after giving up 49 goals during opening weekend.
ASU has allowed 10 or fewer goals in five of the team's last eight games and has totaled 105 steals and 56 field blocks on the year.
Leading the charge on defense has been junior defender Lara Kiss, who leads the team with 19 steals and is second with nine field blocks. Baksa leads in that category with 13.
Even with the team's improvements, however, Clapper is looking to change up the tactics.
“We've been practicing new defense that like I'm really curious how it's gonna go,” Petovary said. “As we go forward and play more, we're gonna get more comfortable with it. It's something that can really like work for us.”
ASU heads into the Barbara Kalbus Invitational at No. 9 according to Collegiate Water Polo Association's most recent polls. ASU will take No. 13 Long Beach State and the winner of USC versus Pomona-Pitzer.
With conference play starting in late March, this is a big test for the team.
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.