Spring break in Hawaii is an experience most students would covet, but for the members of the UC Irvine women's water polo team, the five-day excursion into paradise this week is mostly about business.
The No. 6-ranked Anteaters open Big West Conference play on Friday against No. 9-ranked Hawaii, trying to avenge two overtime losses last season to the Rainbow Wahine. One of those losses (the Anteaters also earned a one-goal win over Hawaii last season when all three matches were played at UCI), came in the final of the Big West tournament, which denied UCI a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Anteaters (16-6) are benefiting this season from the return of standouts Jessy Cardey, Danielle Warde and Annika Bergesen, all of whom redshirted last season to allow a class of nine freshmen to, well, dip more than their toes into the pool.
"I just felt that it was a good opportunity to get our freshmen a bit of experience and, academically, the girls who sat out knew they had to get some extra school anyway, so it worked out for them as well," said Coach Dan Klatt, a former All-American player at UCI and a 2004 Olympian who is also an assistant coach for the women's U.S. national team that he helped win gold at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Cardey, a redshirt senior, was Big West Player of the Year in 2012 and 2011 and earned second-team All-American honors as a junior in 2012. She has 34 goals this season, ranking third on the team behind sophomore McKenna Mitchell (40) and Warde (38).
Warde, a redshirt junior, was second-team All-American in 2012, when the Anteaters won their fourth straight Big West tournament title and repeated as regular-season conference champions. Like Cardey, she was named to the U.S. national team roster last summer.
Bergesen, a redshirt senior, has 15 goals this season, adding to a veteran group that includes senior Hannah Croghan and junior goalie Jillian Yocum, who were both first-team All-Big West in 2013. Croghan led the 'Eaters last season with 42 goals and 49 steals and her 26 assists ranked second on the squad. Croghan has 31 goals this season.
Senior Hillary Estrada was second-team all-conference last season, when Mitchell and Gabby Pierandozzi, both then freshmen, received honorable mention in all-conference voting.
The depth and offensive balance are ideal for Klatt and his staff, said Klatt, who in his 10th season continues to try to crack the perennial top-four programs of USC, UCLA, Stanford and Cal, ranked Nos. 1-4, respectively. Five of its six losses are to the big four, including two six-goal setbacks against Cal.
"We've had seasons in which we've had one person a little bit more out in front [in scoring]," Klatt said, "but truthfully, for us, I think it's really important to be well rounded. One of the things I preach is that if you have an open shot, you have to take it, because the defense needs to honor everyone. It's too easy in our game to just take away one player.
"I think our strength is our well-roundedness. I don't think we're blazingly amazing in one area, or that we're especially poor in some other area. I just think we're good at all areas."
The Anteaters are hoping to be good in conference play, to try to earn one of two first-round byes in the conference tournament that will go to the top two in the standings. UCI has won or shared four conference regular-season crowns in the Big West's first five years of existence.
"We're excited heading into conference, because we recognize that that is the best path for us into the NCAA Tournament," Klatt said. "It's the second phase of the season for us, as we try to build to the championship piece."
Klatt said Hawaii (13-6) poses a formidable opening foe, but there are no softies in the Big West. Cal State Northridge is ranked No. 7, Long Beach State is No. 12, UC Davis is No. 15 and UC Santa Barbara is No. 16.
Adding to the challenge is an extended stay in Hawaii, which Klatt said could have pluses and minuses.
"The [Rainbow Wahine] are really tough to play here in Hawaii, but we're really fortunate to have the game scheduled during spring break, so it allows us the ability to be here a couple days before we play the game and just kind of acclimate," Klatt said. "I think the allure of Hawaii is a challenge in itself for young people. We don't have a crazy travel schedule, because a lot of water polo is played in California. So to get the opportunity to go somewhere else and somewhere a little exotic is just exciting. But we had our first practice here [Tuesday] and I thought it was one of our best of the season. I think getting here a few days early allows [the novelty of travel] to wear off a little bit, so that by the time the game comes, the purpose of why we are here comes back into the forefront."
That being said, Klatt noted that there will be time to have some fun in the sun.
"Absolutely," Klatt said about chiseling out some free time for his student-athletes to enjoy their surroundings. "They will be able to enjoy a little beach time, the weather and the culture here. There's no way I could bring them over here and lock them down for five straight days without them hating me dearly by the end of the trip."