Women’s water polo excited for Big West ‘gauntlet’

Courtesy Photo: CSUN Athletics Department

Edward Segal, Sports Editor

As a more experienced team in a conference where the other schools are consistently ranked, the Matadors believe they are ready to return to their 13-6 selves from before the pandemic.

CSUN women’s water polo enters the season with only two freshmen on the team. As one of the more veteran-filled teams in the Big West Conference, the Matadors look at chemistry as one of the biggest factors in getting to a winning record this coming season.

“This is by far, in my 20 years, the most mature group I’ve ever had,” CSUN head coach Matt Warshaw said. “We skipped a ton of steps in the fall that we didn’t have to kind of go back and do again, just because of the maturity level. And with only two freshmen in the group, I think our average age is like almost 21 years old. So it’s been really sweet just to kind of hit the ground running with this crew right now, and the things we said were going to happen a year ago are happening.”

The Matadors have hovered around .500 since 2014, falling to a negative record for five straight years before finishing 13-6 in the abridged 2020 season. After the cancellation of the 2021 season, the Matadors returned in 2022 and fell to 12-14.

This put them at the bottom of the conference, along with the 11-13 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, the only other Big West team with a losing record.

Courtesy Photo: CSUN Athletics Department (Will Navarro)

Conference play has been a thorn in the side of the Matadors throughout the last decade. Their last regular season victory against a conference opponent came in 2017 against UC Santa Barbara. The Matadors are in a “gauntlet” of a conference, as Warshaw calls it, since all six of the other teams are consistently ranked Top-25 in the Collegiate Water Polo Association.

“The Big West is like the gauntlet of women’s water polo,” Warshaw said. “Everybody’s in that top 20, and other schools kind of supply Olympians from around the world. So really it comes down to kind of execution. But every Big West team runs a really distinct, different style, and so we got to install the game plan and execute it.”

The Matadors struggled defensively at times last season, allowing the most goals of any team in the conference, with 281. Counterattacks were one area in which the Matadors had difficulty keeping their opponents off the board, while finishing games also proved challenging, as six of their losses came by three points or less. They were outscored 33-25 in the second halves of these games.

“It’s a trust issue,” Warshaw said. “It’s like a magical, beautiful thing when everybody’s playing as a unit on defense. But when we got one person kind of out of line, it shines. When we play these good teams, they’re able to kind of expose that one person that isn’t in the right spot or isn’t doing her assignment.”

One person who immediately provided a big impact on both ends for the Matadors last season is center Dorottya Telek. She ranked second in steals and third in field blocks in the Big West, helping the Matadors relieve some of that pressure.

Telek, who is in her third year of college, made her debut last year after the 2021 season was canceled, and led the team in statistical categories on both sides of the ball. Telek led the Big West in goals scored with 77, and was second in assists with 31. She was named to the All-Big West Conference first team, and received an ACWPC All-American honorable mention for her versatility.

“These were only possible because I knew that the team had my back at the games,” Telek said. “And this helps me a lot because of course I can give them a good performance at games if I know that they are going to be there for me. And this is why I always want to give them 100%, to give them back those assists or those good looks at the field.”

Telek says she needs to improve her outside shot because she gets tired often, which affects her aim when shooting from a distance.

Courtesy Photo: CSUN Athletics Department (Will Navarro)

Tatum Scarry, another player who joined in 2021, contributed 13 assists to the Matadors’ last campaign.

“So I’m an attacker on the four-five side, and I think a big part of that is being able to know where to put the ball and what needs to happen in the pool. So just being aware of what my teammates are doing, or what we need to run … to score,” Scarry said. “I feel like we have a good vision on that side, and it’s always nice to be able to communicate and set up and direct your teammates where they need to go.”

Scarry is entering this season with a focus on taking more shots and becoming more of a scoring threat. The second-year attacker cited the improvement of the team toward the end of last season as a sign of things to come, particularly because of the chemistry the team has built.

“I think it’s really reassuring, knowing that we all played together before. Because last year a lot of us were new, so it’s kind of hard to play with people you haven’t played with before,” Scarry said. “I think we improved a lot towards the end of last season, and I’m excited to see the direction that we’re going to go to this season. And since we all know how to play together and work together, I think that we have some big things coming.”

Goalkeeper Meghan Lopez has been a key piece of the Matadors’ improvement. Lopez led the Big West in saves last year with 197, but was fifth in save percentage with 208 goals allowed.

“We’re really lucky that Meghan kind of gathered the amount of experience that she has in the first three years here,” Warshaw said. “She’s just kind of been in the right place at the right time. So we have a really experienced goalie in there. Not a lot Meghan hasn’t seen. So she commands the defense, and we trust in Meghan. I think she can lead us to a lot of great places.”

In her time playing water polo for the Matadors, Lopez proved to be a versatile keeper. In addition to leading the conference in saves, she racked up 11 steals, 10 assists and two goals. Her ability to generate offense for the attackers helped the Matadors take the jump to 13-6 in 2020, after five years of having a negative record.

The other goalie on the roster is freshman Erica Neri, who earned two first-team All-League honors and one second-team selection as the goalkeeper at Grossmont High School.

The success of the Matadors depends largely on whether or not these keepers are able to come up with clutch stops consistently, as CSUN attempts to move up in the standings.

Warshaw was very clear about his goals for the team this upcoming season.

“Big West title. Top 10 ranking. Three or four All-Americans.”