Northridge, Calif. – Since the start of women's water polo in 2002, Cal State Northridge has established a strong tradition as one of the most consistent, nationally-ranked, successful women's water polo programs in the country.
CSUN has produced seven winning seasons, four 20-win seasons in the past five seasons, produced numerous All-Americans, and has been a leader nationally in producing outstanding students in the classroom.
The 2014 season could be something special, really special. Cal State Northridge returns a team that is extremely strong in all areas; offense, defense, depth, experience, team chemistry.
"We have a significant amount of outstanding starters coming back in 2014," said Dr. Leonardi, CSUN's head coach who has chalked up an impressive 91-56 record against top competition in the country. "We have a number of quality and experienced letter winners. It is fair to say this could be one of the best years CSUN has ever had. I think we are really in a good position to challenge for a conference championship."
So good is the 2014 Matador team that one of the team's goals is to reach the NCAA Tournament. The goal is realistic.
First the offense. Last year, the Matadors produced an incredible 351 goals, fourth-best in school history. An incredible 91 percent of the team's offense returns from last year's squad that chalked up 23 wins. Nine players scored in double figures. Eight of those players return including the team's top seven scorers. They include Lindsy Nelson (70 goals), Marisa Young (50 goals), Jenny Jamison (45 goals), Kelcie Ferreira (43 goals), Molly Henehan (35 goals) and Melissa Doll (26 goals).
"Our overall size and our athleticism is apparent," said Dr. Leonardi. "We are faster than we were last year. We are more explosive. Last year, our core players were sophomores and juniors. They are now juniors and seniors. Probably the most important factor this year is our overall health. Last year, several key players were recovering from injuries, which did not allow them to play to their full potential. Since then, they have recovered from their surgeries and are ready to continue their overall development. Like in any sport, being healthy and peaking at the right time will be the difference."
In addition to Young's outstanding play at the center position, Molly Henehan and Kelcie Barott, a junior transfer from Colorado State University will share time and contribute significantly at the center position.
"All three of them will provide opportunities to score," said Dr. Leonardi. "Teams will have to tactically prepare for them which will open up our outside shooters."
The team's attackers will create headaches for the opposition, according to Dr. Leonardi.
"Lindsy Nelson and Jenny Jamison, will have monster seasons," said Dr. Leonardi. "Katie Kammer and Celena Photopulos should have a breakout year. The one player that will make a huge impact is Mackenzy Fowler, a transfer from Arizona State University. She is fast, explosive, and her polo IQ is very high. We will also have opportunities for some of our younger players to get a lot of minutes. These include Taitum Herrington, Bianca Adams, and McKenzie Pollei."
Opponents will face a CSUN defense that will be tough, experienced, and provide a presence that will be formidable.
"Our two best defenders are Kelcie (Ferreira) and Melissa (Doll) who guarded the other team's best centers last year" said Dr. Leonardi.
Ferreira led the team in steals (80) last year while Doll had 48 steals. Celena Photopulos had 41 steals, third-best on the squad last year. Ferreira added a team-leading 42 field blocks while Young added 29, and 25 each for Doll and Photopulos.
Another defender that is expected to have a good year is Alexis Elias, a freshman from Arroyo Grande High School in San Luis Obispo.
The anchor of the defense is junior goalkeeper Kiernan Davis, who will emerge as one of the better goalies in the country.
"Kiernan brings good size, leg strength and a presence," said Dr. Leonardi. "She understands tactically what we are trying to do. Kiernan is at a point in her career where she can take over a game. Because she has two years of collegiate water polo experience under her belt, she has now taken that next step to be in the upper echelon goalies in the conference."
Davis tallied 289 saves last year, fourth-best for a single season in school history.
Natalie Averell will serve as a quality, reserve goalkeeper.
In addition to Alexis Elias (defender), another top freshman player will be McKenzie Pollei (utility). Other incoming freshmen are Marissa Petras (attacker), Jade Arner (attacker) and Emily Fuller (attacker). Kristi McGee, a freshmen defender, and Molly Bria, a utility player, will redshirt in 2014.
"McKenzie brings a solid background who knows our system of play. She is physical. She does all the little things right. Elias brings size, good athleticism and will be our third center defender behind Melissa (Doll) and Kelcie (Ferreira).
Also look for quality depth from Bianca Adams, a redshirt junior from Cal State Bakersfield.
With such a strong, deep, talented team, a highly competitive environment has been created.
"That's a fair assessment," said Dr. Leonardi. "There is good competition at practice. I can already tell the level of practice is more competitive. The players are going to compete for playing time. Because we are bringing back so many quality scorers, it will be intriguing to see how everything will look once we put it all together. The one thing I know is that we are unselfish as a team. Our system of play will provide balanced scoring. You may have one or two players score a few more goals. But on any given day, anybody can lead us in scoring."
In just 12 years since the start of women's water polo at Cal State Northridge, the Matadors have developed a strong tradition.
"I am entering my ninth season coaching at CSUN (four years as head coach, four years as an assistant coach)," said Dr. Leonardi. "I think the athletes can relate to the culture we have implemented here at CSUN. We not only want the athletes to have success in the pool at CSUN, but also in the real world. When former athletes and alumni come back to CSUN, they witness the culture that they directly had a hand in building. I am a big believer in creating a winning culture, but at this point in the program, we now strive to consistently perform at a high level each year. That is what makes a program or an organization successful. Consistency! I remember my first recruiting class here at CSUN. They are now out in the work force. They are lawyers, physicians, teachers, officers, etc. They are successful members of the community."
Along with the strong tradition, academics are strong in the classroom as it is in the pool. Under Dr. Leonardi's direction, 24 players have earned Academic All-Americans honors 38 times. A total of 18 players have won Big West Conference All-Academic accolades 26 times.
"Like any coach, I want to win games. I want to win championships. But I also want my athletes to graduate and have the option of pursuing advanced degrees and be successful in their desired field of study. The culture of this program promotes both academic and athletic success. Our recruiting focuses on bringing individuals who have the potential to succeed in both areas."
The Matadors compete in the Big West Conference. It's a well-balanced and well-coached conference, according to Dr. Leonardi. The Big West Conference is the only conference in the country that has all of its members ranked in the Top 20. You have to prepare and compete each week for all Big West teams. However, UC Irvine has set the standard the past four years. The Anteaters have won the conference tournament title the last four out of five years, and has been a regular participant in the NCAA Tournament.
"UC Irvine brings back a lot of quality talent," said Dr. Leonardi. "UCI has always been the standard in our conference. They are well coached and play a disciplined and fundamental style of water polo. If you want to measure yourself in this conference, you look at UC Irvine."
Let the games begin.
"Our chemistry in-and-out of the water is fantastic," said Dr. Leonardi. "We compete hard in the pool but when we are out of the pool, we are a family. The girls support each other in every facet, school, everything. I think we are going to be there at the end."
Matador Memo ...
Cal State Northridge begins its 2014 season this weekend at the UCSB Tournament … On Saturday (1/25/14), the Matadors face Whittier at 1:00 pm followed by a 6:20 pm game against UCLA … On Sunday (1/26/14), CSUN faces Pacific at 10:20 am followed by a 2:00 pm encounter against Cal State Monterey Bay.