Sophomore driver Maryann Slama looks to continue making key contributions to the Cougars this season after two hat tricks and eight total goals in four games. Courtesy: APU Sports Information

Azusa Pacific women’s water polo started off its 2014 season last weekend with a tournament at UC Santa Barbara, losing their first match against the No. 20 University of the Pacific 10-1 and winning their second over Cal State Monterery Bay 11-5. After adding six freshmen and one transfer to the team this year, head coach Julie Snodgrass said she hopes the team can be ranked in the top 20 nationally.

“Out of seven teams, last year we were voted sixth in the rankings, and my goal for this season is to finish better than where preseason polls put us,” Snodgrass said. “More than rankings, we really want to establish a culture of relentlessness.”

Snodgrass has purposely scheduled games against some of the top schools in California. They will be going head to head with schools such as the University of Southern California, University of the Pacific, Arizona State and San Jose State.

“I intentionally made the schedule this year really difficult, like the top-five teams,” Snodgrass said. “I want the girls to have an attitude that says, ‘I can play against these girls,’ and ‘I can compete at this level.'”

The players are also hoping to “play for each other,” in addition to getting a winning record, according to junior driver and captain Lora Donaldson.

“We also want to build our faith together and be an active group in our community,” Donaldson said.

The players are ready to start their season with confidence and determination.

“The older girls feel ready to get out there and prove themselves as athletes,” Donaldson said, “The younger girls want the experience to learn how to be a collegiate water polo athlete.”

The Cougars have trained hard to prepare for the season, attending three-hour daily practices with a mixture of pool time and weights. On top of that, each season they have two weeks of ‘hell’ during Christmas break that consist of six hours of practice per day.

“In order to be successful this season, we need to have positive encouragement and clear vision, so that when we go out there, we know exactly what is expected of us,” junior utility player Courtney Folsom said. “All of this comes from our training, coaches and teammates.”

Folsom said one of the main goals for players this season is defeating the University of Pacific because they believe they are capable of winning that game. Another goal is beating their record from last year, which was 11-21, she said.

“In whatever games we play, we want to show that we are a performing team, and we will show up to the game as a threat,” Donaldson said.

Folsom and Loren both said faith integration has made the team much more motivated to win: They pray before every game, participate in Bible studies and receive text messages containing verses to keep them inspired.

“I think we get more fired up with prayer, and I think our team has gotten to the point where that is our primary motivation,” Folsom said.

The transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division II has not affected the team dramatically, according to Snodgrass. In the NAIA, there was a mini-conference tournament that consisted of only seven teams. Moving to Division II has allowed the Cougars to play in a conference against many top-ranked schools.

“We have the ability now to have a national championship,” Snodgrass said. “Competition-wise, we haven’t really changed our schedule much, because we’ve been playing tough competition since I have gotten here.”