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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.
"We have a really strong defensive team," Pyka said. "We're not going to let teams run up the score. We want to show that Eastern water polo is good."
Pyka stressed, however, that Harvard would not go into the water polo equivalent of the four corners to keep the score respectable.
"We also need to increase our offensive moves," she said. "If we increase our shots, we'll increase our scoring. We've also been working on some new West Coast plays we'll see, and the other defensive schemes we'll see."
But whatever should happen, this will be a great learning experience for Harvard.
"We're hoping to build on this and be a force to be reckoned with in the future," Pyka said. "We're hoping to learn a lot from the experience, and do the best we can, and hope for the best. We'll be able to compete."
Harvard has a full cast leading it into the tournament. Much of the scoring is done by sophomore Missy Ford, a first team all-East selection, and junior Ana Dujmovic, likewise a first team all-East pick.
Co-captains Pyka and Christine McElroy provide leadership and production. And Coach Maureen Travers deserves a lot of credit for bringing stability and excellence to the program.
UC San Diego and UC Davis, this year's tentative favorite, are two of the more formidable teams in the tournament, and both should be tough to beat.
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