Harvard Women's Water Polo Off to NCAA's at Maryland

While perhaps not as notorious as the NCAA men's basketball Final Four weekend, the women's water polo NCAA Championship weekend shares the most important thing with the culmination of March Madness--it crowns the best collegiate team in its sport.

Adding even more excitement to the women's water polo championships, which start today at Maryland and go through Sunday, is Harvard's first-ever appearance.

By beating Brown 13-12 in a thrilling overtime game in the semifinals of the Eastern Championships, the Crimson clinched second place in the Eastern Region and an automatic berth in the eight-team National Championships.

That defeat of Brown, in the Bears' home pool, topped off a breakthrough year for the Crimson.

From the beginning of the year, the players had set going to the National Championships as their goal.

Last year, the team almost earned a berth, only to heart-breakingly lose 7-5 to Bucknell in its final game at Easterns.

There are two four-team brackets in the National Championship tournament. The top two teams from each bracket go into the winners round, and the bottom two go into the consolation round.

Each team will play a total of five games. Four teams from California (including UC Davis and defending champion UC San Diego), three from the East Coast (Harvard, Slippery Rock and Maryland), and one from the Midwest (Michigan) will compete in the tournament.

Harvard will play Slippery Rock in its first game. Harvard lost to Slippery Rock, 11-2, at the Eastern Championships, and Slippery Rock is considered the dominant eastern women's water polo power.

But Harvard is getting closer--it lost 23-3 to Slippery Rock at last year's Easterns.

And beyond Slippery Rock, the west coast teams that make up most of the rest of the field are considered a cut above their Eastern counterparts. (Maybe it's the weather.)

"The difference between the east and west is incredible," co-captain Erin Pyka said. "Slippery Rock is the exception. They got second at nationals last year."

Harvard does not plan on winning it all; rather, the team hopes to not get blown out, steal a game here and there, and use the whole experience as another building block in the rapid rise of Harvard women's water polo.

"We assume we'll get beat most of the time," Pyka said. "We're hoping to take seventh. But that's not really a defeatist attitude. It's like Harvard [men's basketball] playing the Celtics."

That analogy might be promising, however, in light of the recent Celtics-Magic series, where the much-more-than-underdog Celtics gave the Magic a real run for their money. The Celtics used defense, and Harvard plans to do the same.