STOCKTON, Calif. - For many athletes the thought of playing for your country is a dream come true. For others, it's a dream they strive to work towards everyday. And for University of Pacific sophomore, Savannah Fitzgerald, it's all of those things and above.
The Pacific women's water polo standout was honored by USA Water Polo by being selected to the Women's National Team for the 30th annual World University Games in Napoli Italy. A team stacked with talent, experience, and a winning culture, Fitzgerald looks to mesh well with the reigning 2017 gold medalists and soak up her first experience for Team USA at an international level:
Savannah Fitzgerald-USA Water Polo World University Games
1. World University Games. Naples, Italy. 30th Anniversary. What does being part of such a historic event and representing your country mean to you?
My initial feeling would have to be pure joy. This is the first time in my entire life that I have been selected to represent Team USA and I couldn't be more excited. I think that we have a really really great team that has a lot of potential to do something monumental in Naples this summer.
2. Describe the process of trying out for the team, meeting some of the coaches and players, and getting that phone call that you made the roster. What was your initial reaction?
To be completely honest, I was really nervous going into the first phase of the tryout in May. After being asked to attend by James [Graham] in the spring, I was overwhelmed with a huge wave of emotion. I had never participated in the Olympic Development Program as most of the players at the tryout had before so going into it I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was there would be a total of four practices before the first cut was made.
After getting the phone call from James after our first camp tryout, I was really pumped to make it to the second. Once the second phase rolled around and 18 girls returned, I felt more comfortable with how I would fit on the team if I was selected. The tryout was a great experience and it was really amazing making a bunch of new friends.
3. What mindset did you have heading into training camp? Was there a certain routine you had or anything you did differently approaching camp?
This past spring season I understood the importance of having a calm mindset in order to play my absolute best. So going into camp, I really tried not to overthink things. I was texting Heather Petri (4x US National Team Olympian & current Assistant Coach for Cal) back and forth and her biggest tip to me was to go out in each session and play my best with the huge signature smile on my face. I did not approach the camp much differently than a regular Pacific practice except trying out a bunch of new shots that I normally wouldn't try (because why not?) and playing with more confidence.
4. This is your first official opportunity on an international stage but you've played in some big moments before being part of back-to-back Golden Coast Conference (GCC) titles and two straight NCAA appearances since coming to UOP. How do you feel your experience at Pacific has prepared you for Italy? Do you feel like it will be anything similar or different to those big moments in the past?
I feel like these past two years have been nothing short of my expectations. Being from the Fresno, the Central Valley is really overlooked when it comes to water polo. No one expects much. I feel that when I was being recruited to Pacific, I finally had an opportunity to do something special – to represent the Valley. In just two years, I am a completely different player than when I was recruited. James invests so much time and energy into the program and especially the players that it's easy to flourish under his coaching. This summer is definitely the biggest stage that I have ever competed at and I can't wait! I like to view these big games and tournaments as an opportunity to make people proud, and being able to compete with Team USA at the World University Games is the greatest chance of them all!
5. You've competed against a majority of your teammates who also made the World University team either in nonconference matches this season or in years past. Do you feel this might help with building team chemistry? Why or why not?
I think that competing against these girls for the past two years has let us learn each other's playing styles a little bit. However, this is my first opportunity playing at this level, so I have not played with a single one of these girls before. I think that our official training camp (June 21-26) will help alot with team chemistry!
6. On that same page, you've been paired with a coach you've gotten to know for quite some time while at UOP, Head Coach James Graham. What challenges are you looking forward to being coached by him in a completely new setting and how do you think your rapport with him in the pool will feed into your games in Italy?
I think this trip to the World University Games is going to provide a huge growing opportunity for both of us. James and I both value getting better almost more than success. I'm really excited to see him coach at this level, it's always been a dream of his and I can't wait until our first game. We're both always on the same page. From past experiences with him, I think our constant open communication has fueled a great relationship in and out of the pool. I also think that part of my role on this team will be the "analogy translator", because we all know how James is a numbers guy and how he can get when trying to explain something.
7. You are one of four women on the team to come from a mid-major university (UOP, UC Irvine, San Jose State). How was coming from a smaller school fueled your drive in achieving rewarding accolades like this? With respect to UOP, how has its culture of "Dreaming Big" and being part of "WaterPoloU" set you up for success?
In my head, I have always had an underdog mentality- the Central Valley taught me that. Going to Pacific, a small private school in Stockton, California, I feel as if the same mentality can apply. UOP has provided a very intimate environment for success and I couldn't be more thankful for that. The "Dreaming Big" culture has always literally been my catch phrase. I have had a picture frame that contains the saying "DREAM BIG" in my room since I was 12. My time at Pacific has been nothing short of extraordinary due to "WaterPoloU." In the fall, that is when the men's season is in its peak and that, to me, is the peak time when Pacific joins together for water polo. It is the absolute dream having your school support you like that. I can't wait for next season coming off of the World University Games!
8. Two years ago the USA Women's team took gold at the World University Games in Taipei. This year you guys start off with a fresh slate, a younger roster, and another wonderful opportunity. What's the mindset heading into these Summer Games and how do you look to build off of your 2017 run?
I think our team has an absolutely insane amount of potential. We haven't played together before, we all have different styles from our college coaches, and we are on a time crunch. All these variables are make it seem choatic at first bubt James thrives in these environments so I'm pumped to see how we do this summer. My biggest hope for being on this team is to gain valualbe experience playing internationally as well as establishing great relationships with my teammates and coaches.
9. What are the top three things you're looking forward to experience/do while you're in Italy?
- Get closer to my teammates and come home with some hardware
- Eat a lot of yummy foods
- Explore the city and watch the other USA teams compete
Fitzgerald played a key part in aiding the Tigers' to their third consecutive Golden Coast Conference title this past season. The sophomore finished with a total of 36 goals, 23 drawn exclusions, 14 steals, 11 assists, and a shot percentage of .493. Fitzgerald exponentially saw growth in her second year at UOP improving from her 8 goals, 5 steals, and 2 assist statline. She would also go on to record nine multi-goal performances 2019, including two career-highs with four goals against Fresno Pacific (Jan. 19th) and UC San Diego (March 3rd).
No. 7 Pacific would finish out their 2019 campaign with a record of 18-9, 7-0 in GCC play. The Tigers reached their third consecutive NCAA Championships before being knocked out by eventual champions, Stanford, in the quarterfinals.
Fitzgerland will join fellow Pacific Water Polo Head Coach James Graham in Italy as he was selected earlier this year as head coach for the Women's National Team.
A full match schedule of the World University Games and any broadcast information will be shared as soon as it is available. For more information on the 2019 World University Games, click here.