Oregon women’s club water polo’s seniors still remember the heartbreak ending to their freshmen season.
Only once in the last 12 seasons has Oregon not won the Northwest Division title. It occurred in 2013, when then-freshmen Annie Arcuri, Emily England, Brittany Haley and Brett Higgins watched as their ‘A’ team lost to Portland State, 12-11, in the Northwest Division Championship game. Those seniors were denied a chance to play in one last national tournament.
“It was painful to watch,” England said. “To see what it was like to have all those years of nationals and then your senior year you don’t make it.”
This season Oregon enters the 2016 Northwest Division Championship with a No. 1 seed, thanks to a 7-1 regular season record. Learning from previous seasons, the four seniors and first-year coach Steffen Land made a deliberate effort to set goals and, more importantly, create a fun atmosphere.
“We all wanted that happy-go-lucky fun team vibe, because in years past it hasn’t necessarily been that,” Arcuri said.
The team asked Land to coach the 2016 season after their last coach, Kenji Hammon, was no longer available. While previous coaches were often former Oregon men’s club players similar in age, Land, 51, brought three decades of playing experience from his upbringing in the Netherlands. He also plays for the US water polo Masters team.
“There’s a little bit of distance between us in age that helped them – at least in the beginning – to focus,” Land said.
When Land accepted the offer, he established that he didn’t want to be an intense coach. Instead, Land intended to build a foundation that would work for every player, regardless of their role.
“I told them, ‘I’ll start slow, let’s have fun, let’s enjoy it and then we’ll build from there,'” Land said. “That has worked out very nicely.”
The season has exceeded Land’s expectations, but it hasn’t been without its setbacks.
Haley, who played a key role as Oregon’s hole set in front of the opposing goal, was lost for the season when she tore her pectoral muscle while taking a shot. England sat out a few weeks of the season with a concussion, as did freshman Emme Van Voris of the ‘B’ team.
In addition, Land says the team’s weakness continues to be its tendency to get rattled when games become more physical. This was true in March, when Oregon lost its only regular season game, an 8-6 decision against Portland State.
“There’s an interesting rivalry going on… they know each other very well,” Land said. “Those games get more physical than they need to be.”
Growing up in the Portland metro area, Arcuri, England and Higgins played in high school with several players from Portland State. But in large part, this rivalry has developed as a result of Oregon’s loss to Portland State in 2013.
“We kind of have this vendetta against them because they beat us that one time,” Arcuri said. “We always want to beat them.”
Coming back from spring break, Land spent a few weeks of practice focused on conditioning, which were among the most intense of the season.
“They weren’t too happy with me,” Land said.
This week, however, the team has focused on its mental approach to regionals. As the seniors remember 2013, advancing to nationals isn’t a certainty.
“We know what it looks like to not win,” England said. “We’re pretty excited… There’s a definite significance to these regionals for our seniors especially.”
Oregon begins the Northwest Division Championship, in Pullman, Wash. on Saturday against Western Washington at 1 p.m.
Follow Will Denner on Twitter @Will_Denner