'Women Making Waves: Team Burns With Desire to Win Nationals in May'

  • March 10, 2005

Two days after sweeping a home tournament and defeating three top-five teams in their pool, Cal State East Bay's women's water polo team begged their coach for a reprieve at practice.

"Noodle polo? The answer is a definite no," said Lisa De Rossi, scoffing at the idea of her players horsing around on the foam "noodles" often seen in recreational pools.

True, the coming weekend would be the team's first break since the season began in January. And yes, the Pioneers were likely to be ranked among the top two Division III teams when the new national polls came out the next day - only the second such ranking in the school's history.

But they were only halfway through the season. They hadn't even made nationals yet.

"You can't get cocky," De Rossi said, as she squinted at the pool during thewarm-up. "You have to always think that now, every team wants to knock you off."

This weekend the team will travel to Southern California, where it will face four teams at the Claremont College Tournament, two of which the Pioneers have beaten this season.

As she paced up and down the pool deck in her Billabong shorts and matching visor, the Australian coach kept a close eye on the team's energy, as well as its form. When the women weren't sputtering in agony, they joked and chatted as they treaded water for minutes at a time while holding yellow polo balls high above their heads.

Somehow, amid grueling exercises and the stress of trying to stay on top, team members have held onto their sense of fun - an element that might be the secret of their success. In honor of their coach's Australian roots (and ankle tattoo), the team's mascot is Skippy, an inflatable kangaroo.

"We're giggling, we're laughing, we're giving each other crap," team captain Aja Roper said after emerging from the pool. "The team togetherness this year is a lot stronger than it has been in the past. It seems like this year, everybody's on the same page. Everybody."

Two years ago, when Roper joined the unranked team, it was De Rossi's first year with the Pioneers as well. Seven players quit on the first day of practice. By the end of the season, the team was ranked in the top 10 with just nine players, six shy of what it has now. Since a water polo team has seven players in the water at once, they had to endure entire games with little or no relief.

As of last Wednesday, the Pioneers ranked second in the nation. This season, more than ever, the senior-heavy team is burning with the desire to win the nationals, which take place in mid-May.

Before each game, Roper said, she reminds the team of the joy of the sport - that they get to "play in a pool" together at their age. Then, she says, she urges the six seniors to "go out with a bang, because it's not going to go on forever."

"It's almost over for us," she said.

In her office before practice, De Rossi recalled her beginnings as the fourth coach in five years, when no opponent took the team seriously.

"Obviously, teams can't take us lightly anymore," De Rossi said.

With six seniors leaving - including Gabriella Keri, the nation's leading scorer - there is a sense of urgency this season.

"I tell them, 'If it's going to happen, it's going to happen this year.'"

The team plays its next - and last - home games at 2 and 6 p.m. April 12 against Sonoma State and California State University, Monterey Bay.


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