PASADENA, Calif. (Feb. 26, 2016) – The return of the team's top scorer over the past two years, seven other holdovers who gained valuable experience last season and an infusion of talented freshmen has Caltech women's water polo raring to begin the 2016 season.
"We are taking everything one practice, one game at a time, doing something to get better every day," Head Coach Jon Bonafede said. "We're still in a period of familiarization where they're learning my style and I'm learning about each of them, but everyone is already progressing in their knowledge of the game and individual skills at this point. We think people are going to be surprised at just what we can do by the end of the season – we're all excited to get it started."
The team's leading goal scorer each of the past two years, Soumya Kannan (Palo Alto, Calif. / Henry M Gunn) fronts a trio of seniors who are all expected to make an impact in their final season. With 67 career goals, 12 assists and 59 steals, Kannan's versatile ability will be especially useful in raising the entire team's level of performance with more complementary pieces around her this year.
"Soumya has pretty much carried the weight of the team the last few years but we're expecting her to get a lot more help from other players this season," Bonafede said. "We still expect her to play most of the game, guard the other team's best player and take shots when we need them, but she and the rest of the team could really thrive with the group we have."
Alexandra Ilic (Austin, Texas / Westlake) is the squad's other four-year player who has embraced a pronounced leadership role following a breakout junior season in which she ranked second on the team with six assists and tied for second with four field blocks. Stephanie Wong (Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. / Palos Verdes Peninsula) only rejoined the team on Wednesday at the conclusion of the women's basketball season (she ended her career as the program's all-time leading scorer) but will be looking to continue her rapid progress after walking on to the team as a junior last year, in which she led the team in saves (37) and ranked second in steals (23).
"Alex still has some untapped potential and has a lot to contribute as a senior," Bonafede said. "She brings a lot of perspective as a multi-sport student-athlete from a leadership standpoint. Stephanie has only been in the pool for a few hours so far, but I've already been impressed with her. You can tell instantly that she's just a natural athlete and is very versatile. She'll be in several different positions for us and brings a great attitude, accepting every role without hesitation."
Five others return from last year as well in juniors Mary Boyajian (Sun Valley, Calif. / Village Christian) and Sasha Zemsky (Mount Kisco, N.Y. / Horace Greeley) and sophomores Cameron Earl (Mahomet, Ill. / Mahomet-Seymour), Devi Ganapathi (La Crescenta, Calif. / Crescenta Valley) and Ciara Ordner (Niceville, Fla. / Niceville). Zemsky stepped up to fill in as the team's goalie last year but will return to her stronger position as a utility in the field, while Boyajian was also a regular contributor throughout the season. Earl, Ganapathi and Ordner saw limited time in their first year but continue to progress as they gain more experience and will look to earn time in the rotation.
"The sophomores and juniors are our X-factors," Bonafede said. "They have limited water polo experience as a group, but are moving forward from conditioning to skill development and we'll continue to work toward specific training and competition. Right now, we're fine-tuning the individual skills that will make them great complements to our seniors and experienced freshmen."
That freshman class includes three likely Day One starters. Freshman Brittany Percin (Moraga, Calif. / Stanford Online) is already well known on campus after winning the first individual women's swimming SCIAC title in the 200 Free just last week and setting seven program records. Katie Johnston (Livermore, Calif. / Livermore) was a three-time All-League and All-Section honoree in high school whose club team played in the Junior Olympics from 2011-14 and won the Cal Cup. Elise Cutts (Portland, Ore. / Sunset) will take up position between the posts immediately with significant goalkeeping experience. Hana Keller (Sammamish, Wash. / Tesla STEM) rounds out the rookie class as a walk-on who starred on the soccer team in high school, as she was named Best Player in the State and led her team to the state title.
"This freshman class is going to make a significant impact right from the start and for years to come," Bonafede said. "Katie brings some high-level club experience and can do anything you ask her. She has a solid all-around game and could be really valuable as a post-up player. She just needs some time to adjust to the speed and style of college before her game jumps another level. Brittany will be a high-impact complementary piece. She has a phenomenal shot and is a workhorse – her speed and endurance are going to give teams problems all game. Elise really changes the team dynamic, opening things up on defense where we can take some chances and trust her to make some stops. She's also very much in her element being vocal from the back and adjusting the team as needed. Hana is a first-time player whose enthusiasm has really struck me; her willingness to jump right in, be fearless and always optimistic rubs off on everyone."
Bonafede and the Beavers open the season this Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 27-28 in Minnesota, where they will face Carthage College, Monmouth University and host Macalester College. Their first home match is set for Tuesday, Mar. 8 at 4 p.m. vs. Penn State-Behrend.