Last night, I watched an incredible upset that included a full-scale storming of the court and a wild postgame afterparty. My beloved Fordham Rams had shocked St. John’s from the mighty Big East conference and it was a scene that no Fordham fan will ever forget. Why do I bring this up? Because last season a shocker happened at the NCAA Tournament in women’s water polo and it was also a moment that will not soon be forgotten. Loyola Marymount entered their matchup against five-time reigning and defending NCAA Champion UCLA Bruins as a prohibitive underdog. They left that contest with their program’s first ever victory over UCLA and a spot in the NCAA Final Four.
The architect of that win was Loyola Marymount’s first-year Head Coach Kyle Witt. Prior to becoming the Head Coach of the Loyola Marymount Women, Witt served as the Assistant Men's and Women's Coach under John Loughran. His first coaching stop was at Gannon University where he was the men's and women's Head Coach. As a player, Witt was an outstanding two-meter and ranks sixth all-time on Loyola Marymount’s goals and assists lists. I caught up with Coach Witt to discuss this year's LMU team. Below is our interview.
Your squad returns a number of key contributors from a team that made a Final Four run. What does Loyola Marymount need to do to get back to the Final Four and beyond?
Last year's squad had a lot of success due to the balance of our team on offense and our willingness to outwork teams when we play defense. In order to repeat last year's success we will need to continue with that philosophy. If we want to build upon last year's success then we will need to manage our team goals better and increase our intensity in our training sessions. Our goal has always been to win a national title so finishing our season with a fourth place finish at the NCAA tournament and a final ranking of fourth nationally was a great step forward, but we have more to work on and I feel this team will meet those challenges.
Kristine Cato was outstanding in your upset over UCLA and is arguably the best goalie in the country. What makes her the great player that she is?
Kristine has a lot of talent and her desire to be one of our country's best is very noticeable. She has more to work on in order to be considered one of the best goalies in the NCAA field and I think she is excited about achieving both that personal goal and our team goal of winning a national title. In order to be one of the best players in the country at any position I feel as though you cannot compare yourself to your contemporaries, you must compare yourself to the player that you dream that you can become. That will always leave you hungry for more work, having a desire to play in big games, and humility to know that there were several people that helped you along the way. I expect for Kristine to have a phenomenal season in the cage for us this year and I expect our defense to be one of the best in the country with Kristine being asked to be our backbone.
You have three athletes from the same club team at Commerce; can you describe their impact on your program?
We have three fantastic players on our team from Commerce Aquatics run by Gabriel Martinez. Any player that comes from that club is going to have the mental fortitude to play in high-pressure games, a fantastic understanding of the game and how to play it the right way, as well as a skill set that is second to none. Diana Romero, Daisy Carrillo, and Mary Ann Campos all came to LMU with the goal of playing big minutes, helping take our program from a top ten to a top five national ranking, and with the common goal of winning a national title. Diana is one of our team captains this year and she has done a fantastic job of staying focused through some tough times on keeping her grades up and improving in the pool and weight room. Daisy's attitude has been excellent at our trainings as she has been able to keep everyone focused, teach our younger players our system in the water, and above all be a quarterback for our offense. When Daisy has the ball in her hand, she will make the correct decision nearly every time and has done a great job of setting up her teammates. Mary Ann has quietly become one of the top players in program history and she has done this with very little personal recognition. She is a returning All-American for us and is steadily climbing our career goals list. I would expect for her offense to continue to be a rock for us and last year her defense was at an all-time high as well. The Commerce girls have done great things for our program and I am excited that Laura Lopez will be joining us from Gabriel's club team as these three athletes leave our team at the conclusion of the 2011 season.
Two of your top juniors this year are Kimberly Benedetti and Casey Flacks. How can such untouted recruits make an impact on the national scene?
Both Casey and Kimberly did fly under some coaches radars during the recruiting process but Casey had suitors at UCLA and Stanford as well as Benedetti getting looked at by UCSB if memory serves me correctly. LMU has an ability to recruit players that can come in and get serious collegiate minutes early in their careers and learning under fire usually does fantastic things for athletes. Benedetti has the goal of making it into our national team system and won't take no for an answer. She has made significant gains in the weight room, her speed has improved, and her ability to hold position at two-meter and to make a move for a kickout or shot attempt have all improved greatly in her two years here at LMU. Casey has always had a motor that has allowed for her to never stop moving on both the offensive and defensive end. I believe she led our team in assists and steals last year and she wreaked havoc on several team’s game plans with her ability to get in counter lanes, make up for other players mistakes, and put extreme stress on other teams drive defense. I am happy that both players chose LMU to continue their water polo careers because both of their styles of play mix greatly with the system that I have implemented.
Can you tell us a little bit about your recent November signings and what you are expecting out of them?
I would say that LMU signed a fantastic recruiting class and we are not done yet. We were able to sign two of our top four recruits and they will both make an immediate impact in the pool when they arrive in September of 2011. Mackenzie Beck comes from Santa Margarita HS and SET Water Polo Club in Orange County, CA. She is a true utility player that can both hold position at two-meter, drive in from the perimeter on a post up, and make good decisions when she remains on the perimeter as a driver. She will continue to develop under Brad Schumacher at SET and I am excited to see what she can do for her club this summer as she has steadily risen to be one of their better players. Laura Lopez comes to LMU from Commerce Aquatics coached by Gabriel Martinez and plays for Montebello HS. Laura is much like her predecessors at LMU in that she has great game knowledge, can play multiple positions, and knows how to score under all circumstances. Laura will continue her development at Commerce as she plays significant minutes for Gabriel. Both players have played in the national system as well on both the youth and junior team levels. We are still working on a few walk-on recruits from top clubs but I am not allowed to discuss their position until they sign with us. I am also still working on several international players that will make an immediate impact upon our program.
With that our interview ended. Last season Loyola Marymount tasted success at an incredible level. There were no expectations on the team when they entered that game with UCLA and they emerged with a shocking win. This season will be different for Loyola Marymount as the Lions are a squad that many view as a national title contender. LMU returns arguably the best goalie in the country as well as a host of talented field players. Their success from last season should not be fleeting and there is a strong chance that it will be capitalized on this spring.