Star-Bulletin Sports

Thursday, April 26, 2001


UH hosts top teams

By Cindy Luis

The best of women's collegiate water polo, the fastest growing sport in NCAA history, is on display this week at the Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex at the University of Hawaii.

Beginning tomorrow, nine of the 10 top-ranked teams in the country are among the 11 teams that will vie for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship. The winner goes on to the inaugural NCAA women's water polo championship tournament; the runnerup is a lock for the at-large berth in the May 12-13 championship at Stanford.

"The play here this week will be better than the national tournament," Hawaii coach Shari Baird Smart said. "The best is here. We've had a national collegiate championship for women's water polo for over 20 years. But this is the first time the NCAA is sponsoring the sport.

"It's very cool."

The host Wahine, winners of their last seven matches, are ranked fifth and seeded sixth. Smart said she'd be very pleased with a top-five finish for her team, which is graduating its first four-year senior class (Rebecca Angus, Mandy Crawford, Eko Lapp, Amy Morrow, Andy Nishioka and Sarah Shepard).

"It would take a big effort on our part to finish higher than fifth," she said. "The top four programs are at another level and I would say the top two -- Stanford and UCLA -- are in a league of their own. They've got Olympians, they've got loads of talent. And SC and Cal are capable of beating the top two teams."

Hawaii (20-7 overall, 4-6 MPSF) is hosting the conference tournament on a rotating basis. UH had put in to host the NCAA Tournament, but lost out to top-ranked Stanford.

Smart is confident Hawaii will host the nationals within a few years.

"I know we'll put on a first-class tournament this week," said Smart, 93-50 in her fourth year. "Weather is an issue and we hope it holds up.

"Players like to come here. We have the (Hawaiian International) tournament and most players who have been competing at a top level for any length of time will have played here at least once in their career."

Hawaii takes on No. 11 Pacific at 1 p.m. tomorrow in the last of the play-in games. Should the Wahine win, they would advance to an 8 p.m. game against No. 3 Southern Cal, a team they lost to 13-6 in mid-March.

Play opens tomorrow with the 10 a.m. play-in game between San Diego State and Long Beach State. The tournament concludes with the 6:30 p.m. title game on Sunday.

Tickets are $5-10 daily and $15-$25 for an all-tournament pass.

The NCAA women's water polo tournament is set up similar to the men's volleyball and water polo tournaments. Three automatic bids are awarded teams from the west, central and east regional tournaments with a fourth at-large berth awarded, usually to the second-place team in the west.

The Wahine's season likely will not end this weekend, even if they fail to finish in the top two.

Hawaii expects to be invited to the National Collegiate Championships, a select tournament along the lines of the WNIT in women's basketball, next week at Stockton, Calif.

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