Another rowdy standing-room only crowd at Haldeman Pool, another USA Water Polo Division III National Championship.
This time it was the Pomona-Pitzer women who took a celebratory leap into the pool after their 8-6 win over Whittier College on Sunday gave them the national title. They completed a Sagehens sweep of the men’s and women’s Division III polo titles with some of the men’s players who won the title in December cheering them on from the stands.
“The crowd at Haldeman was part of what made this experience really special for our team,” says attacker Lucie Abele ’22. “We love hearing students, friends and family cheering us on and having fun, and that support makes games really fun and is super motivating.”
Combined with the men’s cross country team’s NCAA Division III championship in November, Sagehen Athletics teams have claimed an unprecedented three national titles this academic year.
It was also a remarkable double for the coaching staff led by Alex Rodriguez, professor of physical education and coach of both the men’s and women’s water polo teams.
For years, the top Division III teams advanced to the NCAA’s single-division water polo tournaments only to be quickly eliminated by Division I powers. The sport’s national governing body decided to create an alternative to the NCAA tournament, a final four for Division III. This year marked the first USA Water Polo tournament for the women after a two-year pandemic delay.
“I thank USA Water Polo,” says Rodriguez, who also has served the organization as a men's assistant coach in the Olympics. “I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a long list of amazing women play for me and carry me to these moments. This championship is different. A national championship is different. It feels amazing. It doesn’t feel like it used to feel to win conference and go to the NCAAs against Division I teams.
“I was surprised on the men’s side how much love we got for winning the D-III championship, and I expected the same thing. I am truly touched with this opportunity.”
The Sagehen women were No. 1 in the preseason Division III national rankings, and they were No. 1 when the season ended. But the title felt like a long time coming for the team’s five seniors: Abele, Nadia Paquin ’22, Allison Sullivan Wu ’22, Katherine Cullen PZ ’22 and Jessy Nesbit PZ ’22. They lost a year-and-a-half of their careers to the pandemic—the second half of their sophomore season and their entire junior season.
“We were just really excited to have another opportunity at the championship,” says Cullen. “To have our sophomore and junior seasons robbed from us, we knew this was our last chance.”
An underclassman came up big in the final, as Namlhun Jachung PZ ’24 scored two goals and added four assists for the Sagehens, who never trailed. The SCIAC Newcomer of the Year, Jachung was selected tournament most valuable player after her breakaway goal with 1:54 left in the game turned a two-goal lead into a more comfortable 8-5 lead.
Abele, the Sagehens’ leading goal-scorer during the regular season, and Abigail Wiesenthal ’24 each also scored two goals, and goalkeeper Zosia Amberger ’25 held off the Poets’ attempts to come back in the second half.
To win the national championship, the Sagehens had to defeat No. 2-ranked Whittier for the fourth time this season. They beat the Poets twice during an undefeated SCIAC regular season, again in the SCIAC tournament final and a fourth time in the USA Water Polo tournament.
The Sagehens’ overall record of 24-15 might seem surprising, but it reflects a decision by Rodriguez to challenge his players by taking on Div. 1 powers in nonconference play. They took their lumps but came out of it stronger.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a list of strong, confident ambitious women,” Rodriguez says. “You want to train with the best, right?”
The strategy paid off with a championship.
“We talked a lot about our USC game, how USC didn’t beat us up. They just made quicker decisions than us. ... That experience, you really can’t explain it. You actually have to be in the water and feel it. That helps us when they understand what I want from them, quicker decisions.”
The seniors credited determination as well as the contributions of freshman and sophomores, all playing their first college seasons. The payoff was the chance to finish the season with a title.
“We are a Division III program, and we do enjoy parts of the season being able to play Division I teams. We like having that competition,” Nesbit says. “But we like to have something for our division, something we can win and we can say were the best at. So just winning SCIACs and then going to play Division 1—we would like to but we’re probably realistically never going to win that Division I tournament. So having something here where we can firmly say, ‘We are the best.’ It really means a lot.”