Northridge, Calif. - With only eight years of history behind them, the Cal State Northridge water polo program has quickly established a winning tradition. The #12-ranked Matadors are coming off their second 20-win season in school history and a conference regular season title, Interim Head Coach Marcelo Leonardi believes his team has depth, experience and health on their side, which will be crucial as they embark on a challenging schedule against several nationally ranked teams.
"I am excited about the season because we only graduated three seniors from last year's squad (Jessica Coy, Tara McGinley and Devin Sloan)," said Leonardi. "Our team has arguably the best goalie in our conference and in the country in Jillian Stapf. Also we return two individuals who redshirted last season due to injury that will each be entering their junior seasons, Chelsea Curran and Bethany Scamara, who are healthy and ready to go. I think for the first time in a couple of years we have our entire team intact starting the season."
The Matadors enjoyed a remarkable 2009, as they improved their win total by six games from the previous year and won a conference title in their very first year in the Big West. Naturally, winning on the highest level can change someone perspective, as the expectations for this season have increased. Still, despite being defending regular season champions, Leonardi feels his team has something to prove.
"We feel we always have something to prove here. It's the mentality that we are always going to be the underdog, whether we are number one or number six in our conference," said Leonardi. "We always work to develop respect while respecting our opponents."
The Matadors achieved a successful 2009 season with an inexperienced team. What they lacked on experience, Northridge countered with resiliency, rebounding from a 5-12 start to win 15 of their final 19 games. The Matadors' season would end abruptly however in the opening round of the Big West Conference Tournament, as they were upset in sudden overtime by UC Santa Barbara.
"Last year was the culmination of that last step," added Leonardi. "We didn't know how to win last season, so we had to learn how to do it. By losing in the conference tournament, we gained valuable experience that will benefit us this season."
The Matadors return 12 upperclassmen, including seven seniors and two 2009 water polo All-Americans.
Third team All-American Jillian Stapf returns for her senior season at goalkeeper looking to add to her school record save total, which reached a staggering 1,013 last season after saving 387 shot attempts. Stapf averaged 11.61 saves a game during her junior season, easily tops in the Big West Conference, and she had 10 or more saves in 22 of 36 games.
"Jillian is by far the most talented and hard working goalie I have had the privilege of coaching," said Leonardi. "She not only possesses great size, but her leg strength and her presence in the cage is intimidating for opposing shooters. Her leadership on the defensive end is what allows our team to be aggressive defensively."
Stapf's 2009 campaign earned her a Big West First Team selection and the honor of being the only Matador in history to be selected as third-team All-American. "In the past, previous players had only been honorable mentions," added Leonardi. "She might be the best player to ever come through our program."
Backing up Stapf will be experienced junior, Nicole Concialdi, who has 43 saves in 16 career games.
"Based on the style of play, I expect at least five or six players to score over 30 goals this year," said Leonardi.
At the attacking position, the Matadors are deep again with multiple scoring threats this season. Kirra Kylander is coming in to her final season already ninth-best in school history in goals scored with 71. Kylander scored a career-high 34 goals last season. Among the eight scorers who had 20 or more goals, fourth-leading scorer Whitney Delgado made a name for herself by scoring 35 goals in her first year at CSUN, as she went on to be voted the team's Rookie of the Year.
Also two incoming freshman will take the pool at the driving position, Leah Janke and Kylie Sarpa. Janke earned All-CIF First team and Most Valuable Player honors during her senior year at Temescal Canyon High School and Sarpa earned Sophomore of the Year, Senior of the Year, All-American Honorable Mention, and All-CCS First and Second Team honors during her time at Leland High School.
Seniors Ashley Rogers and Alexis Gackstetter, redshirt junior Bethany Scamara, sophomores Alyssa Goldie and Kathryn Outzen and redshirt freshman Torrey Kylander also will be at the attacker position for the Matadors in 2010.
"At the driving position we are very deep. Whitney looks to have a breakout year, Kirra will not only be asked to score but she will also run our offense from the perimeter and Bethany will be asked to finish many scoring opportunities this season," added Leonardi.
"Our freshman coming in bring with them high school and championship experience on the club level. Leah, Kylie and Torrey will all strengthen our bench by providing speed, solid defense and scoring."
The Matadors will get a boost at the two-meter position with the return of junior Chelsea Curran, who suffered a season-ending injury just six games into last season. Curran is tenth-best in school history in goals with 62. The 2008 All-American Honorable Mention scored 36 goals two seasons ago and scored 51 goals over her first two seasons. Joining Curran is 2009 All-American Honorable Mention, sophomore Sydney Sonoda, who had 13 goals in her freshman season, but jumped to a stellar 37 goal season in 2009, good enough for third-best on the team.
2009 Big West Honorable Mention, Alison Pierce will play at the center position this season. Pierce scored 27 goals in her first season at CSUN after playing two years for American River College.
"With Chelsea, a 2008 All-American coming back, our center position will be taken care of pretty well," said Leonardi. "Sydney scores a lot of goals, draws a lot of ejections and creates opportunities for other girls as well. Allison will also be asked to carry the workload at the center position this season. All three will be in contention for not only All-Big West but also for an All-American selection."
Possibly forgotten in the Matadors offensive displays was the outstanding defense they exhibited last season. Leading the Big West Conference with a 7.14 goals against average, CSUN boasts many defenders that are expected to slow down the opposition, which include junior Jessica Goforth, Kristin McLaughlin and Renee Gargiulo and Heidi Pettinger.
"Ultimately, winning a championship will fall upon our team defense. The foursome of Goforth, Pettinger, McLaughlin and Gargiulo has the ability to match up and slow down the opposing team's best players," said Leonardi.
Not only a defensive specialist, McLaughlin had an impressive 2009 junior season. After scoring 25 goals in her first two years at CSUN, McLaughlin scored 29 goals, sixth-best on the team and she had a team-leading 48 assists. Much like McLaughlin, Gargiulo can score goals to compliment her defensive prowess. The senior has 52 goals in her three seasons at CSUN, including scoring 20 or more in each of the last two seasons.
"Kristin McLaughlin is the glue to our team. She is a leader, captain and whatever needs to get done in or out of the water she takes on the responsibility. Kristin has the ability to mesh and gel with all players no matter what ability level or what situation," added Leonardi. "This season, I expect Renee to continue to put up solid numbers much like her previous two years here."
With a deep and talented roster in place, the Matadors must overcome a strong schedule in order to win another Big West Championship.
Before opening up Big West play on March 27 against Long Beach State at Matador Pool, CSUN will play in four tournaments, playing against a host of nationally ranked teams. The Matadors will play five contests against in-conference opponents with two at home against the likes of Long Beach State and UC Irvine. Their final three Big West games will take place on the road at UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and Pacific. The Big West Championship Tournament will be hosted this season by Long Beach State.
"Our first true tests will come at the Triton Invitational, where we will be seeing multiple ranked teams and at the prestigious UC Irvine Invitational, which hosts the top 16 ranked teams in the nation," added Leonardi.
"The way our season is designed, we are going to have to travel to win a Big West Championship. We are playing difficult games on the road. By playing a schedule that is filled with tournaments, we have the opportunity to travel and get the experience in order to breakthrough and win a championship."
Although expectations are high, the Matadors welcome the challenge ahead and with good reason, considering they have yet another talented roster that will take the pool this season.
"This year could be considered a special year due to the development and maturation of our current senior class," said Leonardi. "Combine senior leadership with championship experience and a deep bench; sounds like a recipe for something special. This group has one goal in mind and that is to win the Big West Championship."