In sports, there is a common adage: "Defense wins championships."
The ASU women's water polo team is certainly hoping that is the case, as their defense has greatly improved since last year.
At 7-1, this is the Sun Devils best start since 2020, and while the dynamic offense gets much of the credit, ASU’s improvement on the defensive side of the pool has been the catalyst for this impressive beginning.
Despite it being sophomore Sanne Keijzer’s first year as a full-time goalkeeper, she has saved 53.8% of shots and is averaging over seven saves per game.
Additionally, the team's added roster depth has tremendously benefited the rotation, giving head coach Petra Pardi additional options and the chance to allow key players to rest.
“The experience that the returners have had from last year to this year, as well as the freshmen getting more experienced, we’re meshing better as each game goes on and we're able to learn from our mistakes and build upon them in each game,” sophomore two-meter defender Zoe Frangieh said.
Having already faced six top-20 opponents, the Sun Devils have had a challenging start to the season, but this has helped them understand what they must do in order to win against higher-ranked teams.
During the Triton Invitational in San Diego this past weekend, the team had a halftime lead only once. But they always rebounded in the second half, outscoring their four opponents by a combined nine goals in the latter periods.
"We talked about it as a team as well; we have to put more effort in the first half of the game," Keijzer said. "I don't think it depends on the first quarter or the second half of the game."
In spite of this, the game plan that ASU entered the season with hasn't changed much. Although they have a backup plan, the team fully believes that the time and effort that went into their pre-game preparation will pay off.
"If we do end up needing to use that backup, everybody's still on the same page, and we're able to transition into a different zone or a different defense pretty seamlessly because everybody was already aware of it going into the game," Frangieh said.
Beyond the strategic component, the team’s primary focus at the beginning of the season was communication. According to sophomore center Sophie Shorter-Robinson, that has only continued to get better throughout the season.
"It's definitely gotten a lot stronger, and we're connecting a lot better on the zone defense and press," Shorter-Robinson said.
"I think the different amount of fakes and especially the ways (opponents) are shooting increases the ability for me to change my blocks, and I have to be (more) patient," Keijzer said.
In addition to practices, the Sun Devils really focused on conditioning in the weeks leading up to the season. Even when fatigued, conditioning helped the players key in on the game even more.
"For myself, it's more mentally just to stay in the game," Keijzer said. "The main part for myself is just to stay focused on the ball."
ASU has no problems putting the ball in the goal, but for the team to reach the levels they hope to reach, their defense needs to continually improve. The Sun Devils' strong defensive efforts in the start of the season are a step in a hopeful direction.
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.