AZUSA, Calif.-- Throughout the course of her first two seasons at the helm of the Azusa Pacific women’s water polo program head coach Julie Snodgrass hasn’t shied away from a challenge, putting her young Cougar water polo program in the pool with some of the best teams in the nation. Now in her third season, Snodgrass believes her team, armed with a slew of scorers and 14 returners, is ready to take that next step towards becoming the program that can compete with the best in the country.
The Cougars, who have adopted a ‘play anyone, anywhere’ mentality in Snodgrass’ two seasons, have 10 matches scheduled against teams ranked in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Preseason Top-20. Azusa Pacific will take on three of those when it opens its season at the UC Santa Barbara Invitational, including No. 4 Arizona State and No. 9 San Jose State on the first day of competition.
And while the Cougars have taken on more than their fair share of marquee NCAA programs in the past, Azusa Pacific is hoping this is the season it can break through on its quest to become one of them. With a lineup that loses just one senior and returns four 30-goal scorers from a season ago, Azusa Pacific is primed for a season that can highlight the growth Snodgrass believes she’s seen since taking over.
“I’m hoping this is the year everything falls into place. We have had, and still have, a very tough schedule. And despite the improvements in talent we’ve added over the past few years, our win-loss record looks worse because of who we are playing,” said Snodgrass. “And to be honest, when you’re playing Olympians, you’re playing the best in the world. It’s good for my girls to be able to come out and see how they stack up, and how much they can push and go beyond what they think they’re able to do. I like the challenge, and regardless of whether it leads to more wins and losses immediately, I believe it only makes us stronger.”
In addition to the trying schedule it’s become accustomed to, Azusa Pacific will begin its first season as a member of the Golden Coast Conference. The Cougars, who are charter members of the GCC, will play a full conference schedule in a league that includes three ranked programs (San Diego State, Loyola Marymount, and Pacific), along with the likes of Santa Clara, Fresno Pacific, and California Baptist. Snodgrass is hoping the conference affiliation will help the team focus on more tangible goals.
“It’s exciting to have a conference, to have something to play for. Mentally, it will be easier to keep our focus. Without a conference it’s hard to have a singular focus and understand exactly what our season goals are. Now we have a prize to work towards; there’s a tangible reward that we can strive to attain,” said Snodgrass.
The 2014 water polo roster boasts seven Azusa Pacific records, and includes two players that rank No. 1 and No. 2 on the single-season scoring list in Alyssa Hess and Taylor Whitney. Hess has scored 98 career goals in her two seasons of action, and is within reach of the program-record for career scores (105) set by the lone departing senior from 2013, Jennifer Horchler. Whitney has been a prolific scorer in her first two seasons with the Cougars, pacing Azusa Pacific in goals as a freshman and sophomore.
Courtney Folsom also returns, looking to bounce back from an injury riddled season after a freshman campaign in which she tied the Azusa Pacific single-season mark with 13 multi-goal performances, while adding 36 steals and 26 assists.
“I would probably say this is the most talented team we’ve had since I’ve been here. But outside of the sheer talent, I see more of a team dynamic. Our water polo IQ has increased. The players are understanding their roles and that’s what we need. We want to play systemized water polo and work together to find and exploit a mistake in the defense,” said Snodgrass. “On top of that, I like the leadership of this group. I’m seeing accountability from the players, they’re holding each other accountable for making the right plays in practice. They aren’t letting anyone settle for playing weak water polo.”
The Cougars can attribute their chemistry to the continuity the program’s had over the past two years. Eight of the players on the team have played at least two seasons at Azusa Pacific, while six impact players from 2013 are entering their second season in Snodgrass’ system.
“I really think our junior class is taking our program to the next level. There is a lot of chemistry that’s developing. I don’t think there’s one breakout player, but chemistry-wise I think our team is ready to stand out,” said Snodgrass.
On the defensive side the Cougars return each of their keepers from 2013 in senior Jessica Armagost and sophomore Katie Margot. Armagost ranks No. 2 on the program’s all-time saves list with 206, and started in 23 matches as a junior. Margot appeared in 13 matches as a true freshman, starting nine times to tally 94 saves.
Junior Lora Donaldson is looking to fill the defensive hole left by Horchler, who owns the Azusa Pacific record for career goals (105) and steals (139). Donaldson recorded 26 steals as a sophomore, and finished with 43 during her freshman campaign.
“Lora wants to be the new Jen Horchler. She wants to anticipate the defense and get steals. She’s the type of player that will do whatever it takes to benefit the team. Last season she played goalie for us because both of our keepers were sick. She’d never played goalie before, but she jumped right in and did really well. That’s the kind of teammate she is,” said Horchler.
Fellow junior Angelina Castaneda returned from a red shirt season in 2012 with 17 goals and 10 steals in 2013, helping Azusa Pacific return over 91 percent of its offense from 2013. Castaneda is one of eight players that tallied at least 10 goals and 10 steals in 2013.
After graduating just one senior last season, Azusa Pacific will rely on a larger senior group of Megan Minekime, Rebecca Bennigson, Allison Gonzales, and Armagost to take charge of the team’s leadership responsibilities.
“We have great leaders, and I’m really looking to our core group of upperclassmen to carry the torch and lead the way for the younger players. I like what I’ve seen in our captains, Megan and Lora, and I’m excited to see how the team’s identity takes shape as the season progresses. Every year there is a different makeup of that team dynamic, so that will be something I’m keeping an eye on,” said Snodgrass.
In 2013 Minekime posted her second consecutive season with at least 60 drawn ejections, and holds the top-two spots in the Cougar record book for drawn ejections in a season. Gonzales has tabbed 23 career goals, and has posted two career hat tricks with Azusa Pacific.
The Cougars’ youth will also be a strength. Last season two of the team’s top-five scorers were freshmen, with Brittney Garrigan tabbing 33 goals and 11 assists, while Maryann Slama recorded 31 scores and 27 steals. Alynn Reade played in all 32 matches as a freshman, scoring 16 times, and Breana Echavarria added five goals and four steals in her first season with the team.
After opening the year at the UCSB Invite, Azusa Pacific will compete in five weekend tournaments over the next two months, with matches scheduled against No. 1 ranked USC (Lancer Invitational), No. 16 ranked Michigan (Cal Lutheran Tournament), and No. 10 ranked Long Beach State (Claremont Convergence). Following that stretch the Cougars will face No. 15 ranked Cal State Northridge on March 12 before competing in the Arizona State Invitational on March 14-15.
Azusa Pacific will then return for the first of five home matches when it takes on St. Francis at Citrus College on March 18. The ensuing weekend the Cougars will travel up to face GCC rivals Fresno Pacific and No. 20 ranked Pacific March 21 and 22.
The Cougars’ first-ever GCC home match will take place against Santa Clara on March 28, and after an April 4 meeting with California Baptist, Azusa Pacific will close out its regular season schedule with three consecutive home matches. In that stretch it will face No. 11 ranked Loyola Marymount and Chapman, before taking on No. 9 ranked San Diego State on Senior Day April 16.
Azusa Pacific will then close its 2014 season at the GCC Championships on April 24-26, hosted by Loyola Marymount.
“I’m really excited about the makeup of our schedule. We begin with a really tough stretch on the road, but we get to end our season playing at home. It definitely gives some travel reprieve for the athletes, and it’s always great to have our students come and support us. It’s a different dynamic and a great motivation for the players towards the end of the year.
2014 WATER POLO BROADCAST SCHEDULE
Four of Azusa Pacific’s home matches will be streamed live on Azusa Pacific’s live video channel. The pay-per-view stream schedule is listed below. To access the live video channel, Click Here.
MARCH 28, 5 p.m. - vs. Santa Clara
APRIL 12, 12 p.m. - vs. Loyola Marymount
APRIL 12, 5:30 pm - vs. Chapman
APRIL 16, 6 p.m. - vs. San Diego State.