Jan. 30, 2014
By Francis Kineavy
As we turn the calendar to February and approach another spring semester on campus, head coach Damon Newman and the women's water polo team are less than two weeks away from kicking off the 2014 season. They hope to bounce back from 2013 which saw the program finish 8-29 overall and fourth in the MAAC postseason tournament. With the dawn of a new season and a clean slate, the Wildcats are excited for the possibilities that 2014 can bring.
Part of this excitement is due to last year's emergence of two standout freshmen, attacker Sarina Shibata and driver Naomi Ng. Arriving together from Punahou School on the island of Oahu, these two newcomers wasted no time making themselves known as offensive threats in the MAAC.
The chemistry Shibata and Ng developed while winning four state titles at Punahou proved to ease the transition to the fast paced game of Division I water polo. Shibata tallied 43 goals and 19 assists during her freshman year while Ng netted 24 goals en route to earning MAAC Rookie of the Week and Second Team All-MAAC accoldates, respectively.
Ng credits this long time partnership for the success both players have enjoyed, "I kind of know where she's going to be in the pool, or when she's going to be open and wants the ball. I guess that was easier because we had to learn that for everyone else on the team, but since we knew each other's style already, it was kind of part of our success last year."
With the adjustments to the academic and campus life it is difficult for any freshman athlete to balance being part of a Division I program. Coming from Hawaii, Ng and Shibata not only had to face adjustments symbolic of freshman year, they also had to assimilate to a new culture. Naturally, like any first-year student, both sometimes found themselves experiencing homesickness, however both found that the connection with fellow athletes helped them adjust to being at Villanova.
"The nice thing about being at Villanova is the community is so close. My roommate is on the field hockey team, and she offers up her home and family life for me," Ng recalls.
With their freshman year in the rearview mirror, Ng and Shibata are poised to build upon the duo's success last year. As the season is set to get underway later this month both must settle into new roles on the team. The sophomores are considered elder statesmen on this year's squad with a crop of four freshman and only two seniors with just three years of experience. We can expect Newman to rely on his two sophomores for sources of leadership.
Shibata states, "The leadership definitely falls more on the younger girls now. I think the freshmen look to us more as leaders especially since last year. We proved ourselves as pretty good players on the team. Even the upperclassmen last year looked to us for support when we needed to step up."
Through the connections that Newman has made in top hotbed water polo states like Hawaii and other pacific states, Ng and Shibata are only the most recent in the long line of Punahou water polo players who found their way to the Main Line. Currently, the program has two girls from Florida and seven from west of the Mississippi River. This is just a microcosm of Newman's recruiting philosophy. Currently 14 of the 17 student-athletes on the roster do not call the Keystone State home.
The opportunity that comes with going away to college, according to Newman, stretches far beyond the field of play.
Newman states, "Our athletes that come from long distance are given the opportunity to attend college that is so much different than what they will experience from their home state. The climate, the people, the way of life is different, and I think that is a big draw for our students. It takes them out of their comfort zone and challenges them in many different ways. I believe this is what college is all about; meeting new people, getting an excellent education and experiencing different things you normally wouldn't get if you went to school closer to home."
While for most of us the thought of leaving paradise is inconceivable, Ng and Shibata welcomed the move to the east coast. For Shibata, college felt like a good time to get a fresh start in a new surrounding.
"I just wanted a change of scenery. I'd never really been out to the East Coast before, so I thought why not just try and see how it goes."
The move has turned out to be a positive one for all involved. Newman found two exceptional athletes to build his program around while Ng and Shibata have found a new environment to call home. With that being said, these two longtime friends have taken something else out of the past year and a half.
"Coming here, it's not only made us better friends, but it's made us appreciate home more," said Ng.
The two standout sophomores will look to build on the success they experienced last year as the Wildcats open the 2014 season tomorrow at the Villanova Invitational, when George Washington, Harvard and Canadian club team CAMO pay a visit to the Villanova Swim Center.