NCAAs are over on the women's side and it was once again a thrilling season capped off by Stanford capturing the crown by defeating UCLA. USC took third by defeating California. In fifth place were the Big West regular season Champion UC Irvine Anteaters who won a thriller over Eastern Champions Princeton. This capped off an outstanding season in which Irvine became the first Big West member to capture an at-large bid to NCAAs.
UC-Irvine is led by 2004 Olympian Dan Klatt. Klatt has led the Anteaters to four NCAA bids and six Big West regular season titles in eleven years as UC Irvine coach. Also an Assistant Coach on the U.S. National team, Klatt is one of the bright, young stars of the coaching fraternity. I sat down to discuss this year's Irvine squad and below is our interview.
UC Irvine had a monumental campaign as you won the Big West, finished the season fifth at NCAAs and had a final national ranking of fifth which is the highest in program history. Can you reflect back on that and tell our readers the biggest keys to that happening?
After the 2014 season we graduated 5 seniors who had a big impact on our teams culture and success the previous 5 seasons. All 5 started their senior season and played considerable minutes throughout their careers. At the start of the 2015 season we were uncertain how we would perform. We knew we were talented and that we would have great leadership, but we lacked experience. We put together our most challenging schedule to date in hopes that we would gain valuable experience throughout the season in order to be ready for our conference schedule in April. It was a bitter sweet feeling at the end of the conference season. Although we lost to Hawaii in an exciting overtime game at their home pool in the conference tournament we played well enough to be awarded the first at large bid in program history, and the first to be awarded to a non-MPSF member school in women's water polo history. After a tough Big West Conference Tournament loss we refocused ourselves. Although our goal of winning the NCAA Championship fell short with a first round loss to Cal we finished strong with two important wins. I thought this young team honored their former teammates well and was deserving of our final ranking. After being able to reflect on the entire season the past few weeks I am proud of what we accomplished and believe we took another small step forward in our quest to win a national championship.
Reaching the Final Four is clearly the goal of every program. Your squad was on the doorstep this season. What do you need to do to break the door down?
There are two important things we must be able to do in order to advance in the NCAA tournament. First, we must play with discipline throughout an entire game. Every team at the NCAA tournament is excellent and have players who will capitalize on your smallest mistakes. We had a tough start and a tough finish in our quarterfinal match this year. Second, we have to make the plays necessary to be on the right side of 1 goal games. At the highest levels of water polo their are many 1 goal games that decide who will ultimately be the Champion. At this year's NCAA Championship 6 of the 12 games were decided by one goal. There are a lot of personality traits required to consistently find yourself on the right side of these close battles. Our young team learned some valuable lessons and gained some valuable experience in this area this year. Hopefully this will lead to a breakthrough for us in the near future.
Danielle Warde was fantastic all season and had a stellar career for the Anteaters. What made her the exceptional player she was at UC Irvine?
Danielle is a tremendous women and athlete. When we recruited her to UCI in 2010 we sold her on the dream of helping UCI become a national power. Danielle's individual statistics and contributions are clear, but what really speaks to her impact is the team success. In the four seasons that Danielle played we qualified for four NCAA Championship Tournament's. Something that had never been done in our program's history. In her last season, with a young and inexperienced team, we had a highest national ranking and most complete season to date. She led by example from the moment she stepped onto our campus. She is an irreplaceable leader and a fierce competitor. We are lucky to have had her at UCI and I hope we will honor her with our play as we move forward without her.
You will also be saying goodbye to Jillian Yocum who had a tremendous career between the pipes. What made her the outstanding keeper she was?
Competitive fire, confidence, and athleticism made Jillian the great player is. By many coaches standards Jillian is undersized for a collegiate goalkeeper, but she always played bigger than what she is. She believed that she should block every shot that came her way, and if one got by she always believed she would get the next one. If you ask any teammate that played with Jillian or any coach who coached her I am sure they would tell you that her confidence was contagious. I always believed we had a chance to win no matter who the opponent when she was playing. Jillian's career was filled with moments backing her teammates up both in and out of the pool. She was a great player, teammate, and friend. There won't be a day that goes by where we don't all miss Jill in the UCI family.
Returning for you will be an amazing freshman in Mary Brooks who capped off her season with an All-NCAA Tournament honor. What are you expecting from her next spring?
Mary had a great first season. When we recruited her we expected immediate contributions. Her speed, length, and intelligence are a great fit for our system of play at UCI and allow her to impact nearly every play. Her offensive game developed throughout the season and we expect her to continue to grow in all areas throughout her career. Because of the way Mary trains and competes she is respected by everyone around her. She expects excellence from herself at all times. The burden of leadership will fall on Mary in the immediate future, but it is nothing she can't handle. We can all become better by following her lead.