After earning a No. 13 ranking in the preseason national coaches’ poll, the UC Davis women’s water polo team knows none of its opponents will be taking it lightly.
But that’s business as usual for longtime Aggie head coach Jamey Wright. He enters every season with similar goals and that won’t change with a decorated roster that includes three 2012 All-Big West Conference honorees and four Davis High graduates.
“It’s the same as it always is,” said Wright, who is in his 30th season at the helm of the UCD squad that began as a club program. “We’ve got to continue improving (and) do well in conference to get the best seat for the championship — once we get there, we want to win it. That’s the goal right now.”
Last season, the Aggies posted an 18-13 overall record, and battled to a second-place finish in the Big West.
After advancing to the conference title game — and falling to UC Irvine — UCD graduated a trio of senior co-captains who contributed to the squad’s near-victory.
“We did it with a good combo of weapons on offense and defense,” he said. “This year, I’m feeling better about offense. We’ve lost a lot of defensive presence to graduation.
“The plan now is to instill in this new group a commitment to defend every possession like it’s the last.”
The Aggies, however, do return their two top scorers in seniors Jessica Dunn and Carmen Eggert, a duo that has paced UCD’s offense for the past two seasons and earned Big West first-team accolades last season.
The new-look defense gets a boost from the return of senior goalie Riane Woods, an all-conference honorable mention selection in 2012.
Sophomore Keelia Houston, a product of the Blue Devil water polo program, will lend help on the offensive end — where she shot 13-for-25 last season.
Houston will be joined by a host of other DHS graduates in sophomore Elsie Fullerton and freshmen Haley Cameron and Hailey Wright (daughter of coach Wright).
“It’s cool because we all grew up watching the (UCD) women’s water polo team play,” Houston said. “I remember how in elementary school the Aggie football players would come and sign autographs.
“Now, we have the chance to go to schools and sign autographs. I can’t help but think: that used to be me.”
The local quartet has a history in the pool together that stretches back even before their time as Devils, which makes them comfortable with each other in the pool.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easier,” Houston said ”But once you play with someone for a while you kind of learn their style; what they like to do with the ball, how they shoot it.”
And as familiar as the Aggies are with each other, the same can’t be said for a few of their opponents. This season, the Big West has added nationally ranked San Diego and Hawaii to the competition lineup.
Also foreign to UCD is Cal State Monterey Bay, a team it will host in its season opener on Saturday. The nonconference match at the Schaal Aquatics Center begins at noon.
“There’s always a bit of nerves and anticipation for the coaches on the first game of the year,” coach Wright said. “They have the advantage of playing three games last weekend (going 2-1), which caused me a little bit of concern.”
With that said, Wright’s expectation is to win every match. Doing so on Saturday will require breaking the Otters’ unique defensive style — keeping a field player in the net to support the goalie.
“It’s a tricky thing to prepare for, but we can’t spend too much time on it — we’re not going to see it much,” Wright said. “They’re virtually the only team on the West Coast that plays this way.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett