The level of parity in NCAA Women’s Water Polo is incredible and the level of competition in the individual conference tournaments promises to be outstanding. The race for the Big West title promises to be one of the best as there are four teams in that conference that all look capable of beating each other on any given day. One of those four teams is the Gauchos of UC-Santa Barbara. UCSB has already recorded wins over ranked Big West rivals such as Cal State Northridge and UC-Davis along with also posting an outstanding victory over San Jose State of the MPSF. This strong Gauchos squad is being led by first-year Head Coach Cathy Neushul.
Neushul became the Head Coach at UCSB in October of 2011. Her ascension into the Head Coaching chair came after three seasons serving as an Assistant Coach for the Gauchos. In addition to her coaching duties at UCSB, Neushul has also served as a Head Coach with Santa Barbara Water Polo Club since 2005 where she has led her teams to twenty USA Water Polo National Championship appearances and eight National Titles. Neushul had a distinguished career as a player as she was an All-American while playing for UCSB in the 1980s and was a member of the United States National team. I caught up with Coach Neushul to discuss UCSB water polo and below is our interview.
Your squad had a nice showing at the UCI Invitational finishing in tenth place and defeating a top ten squad in San Jose State whom you had lost to earlier in the year by four goals. Can you tell us about your performance at Irvine and why you were able to be successful?
We started out the season as a very inexperienced squad in terms of productive collegiate game minutes. With 87% of our scoring production graduated from last year, we had three players returning who saw meaningful minutes in the 2011 season. Because of this, during the Fall, we concentrated on mastering individual fundamentals along with basic game strategy. Davis and San Jose were opponents in our first outing of the season. Both are well seasoned, talented squads that capitalized on our rookie mistakes. By the time we met again, it was a full month later and we had multiple matches against ranked opponents under our belt. Although far from perfect, the team is learning to play together and beginning to execute with the necessary skill to win games. Most importantly, every woman on the squad brings a positive, willing to learn attitude to the table. This combined with a collective belief that UCSB can beat anyone led to our victories at the UCI tournament.
The Big West looks completely up for grabs as yourselves, UC-Irvine, Cal State Northridge and UC-Davis all seem capable of beating each other on any given day. What do the Gauchos need to do to emerge victorious and garner an NCAA bid?
The Big West historically has seen a great deal of parity. In the first three seasons, the seeding for the Championships came down to tiebreakers and lower seeds ending up in the championship game. It would not surprise me in the least if this is the case again this year. While Davis and Irvine are certainly the favorites on paper at this point in the season, the ultimate Big West Champion will come down to final preparation and ability to maintain focus throughout the incredibly lengthy Women’s season. In order for UCSB to claim a Big West title, we need to realize that as an inexperienced unit, we will see setbacks and must continue to improve, train through the lulls and keep believing that we can beat virtually anyone on any given day.
Shelby Haroldson is off to a strong start to the season. Can you tell us a little about her and what makes her the great all-around player she is?
Shelby Haroldson is the type of player every coach dreams about for their squad. In her calm, quiet way she leads our team. Shelby is a true student of the game, who very rarely makes a mistake more than once. Her shooting percentage is the best on the team because she takes well-timed, high percentage shots. Shelby understands that assists leads to goals and implements this in her play. She is the true offensive and defensive quarterback of the team.
Ruth Milne is a former U.S. Junior National team player who is quietly playing excellently in goal averaging close to twelve saves a game. What makes her the great goalie she is?
Ruth Milne is the most accomplished goalie in the history of the UCSB program. She broke the school career saves record in the second game of this season, her third at UCSB. As an inexperienced team, we made more than the average number of defensive errors, especially early in the season. I have lost count of the times Ruth erased these mistakes with sensational blocks. She is a fun-loving, easy going team member away from the pool and a fierce competitor once practice and competition begins. If I had to pick one player to stand by me in battle it would be Ruth, she would not only have my, but every member of her squad’s back.
This is your first season as Head Coach after moving up from being an Assistant for a couple seasons. How has the transition been?
The transition from Assistant to Head Coach was and continues to be incredibly smooth, thanks to the UCSB Athletic Department and Wolf. From the Athletic Director to the tireless support staff, UCSB’s Athletic Department maintains a supportive atmosphere. Wolf and I share a special relationship. I am so fortunate to have worked with not only an iconic figure in water polo but a man who is truly passionate about everything he does. During our three years together, Wolf ensured that we functioned as a collaborative duo, and this was by far the most important lesson I acquired from him. Success cannot be achieved without respect for your players, your staff, and yourself.
With that our interview ended. I look forward to seeing how UCSB performs down the stretch of this season. With their goalie play, you would think that the Gauchos will be a very dangerous team when it comes time to playing elimination games at the Big West Tournament. Keep an eye on this squad come late April as the Gauchos have the talent to contend for an NCAA bid.