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Occidental’s climb no accident

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    With senior Karie Nickle, above, and sophomore Nanea Fujiyama, Occidental College has become a power in water polo and is ranked No. 1 in Division III with a chance to play in the Division I tournament.
    With senior Karie Nickle and sophomore Nanea Fujiyama, above, Occidental College has become a power in water polo and is ranked No. 1 in Division III with a chance to play in the Division I tournament.

In Karie Nickle’s freshman year at Occidental College, her Tiger water polo team finished fourth in its conference.

The Tigers have improved one place in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in each of the past two seasons.

With the help of another Kamehameha graduate, this could be the year the Tigers reach the top.

Nickle (’07), a senior, and Nanea Fujiyama (’09), a sophomore, play vital roles for Occidental, which is the No. 1-ranked team in NCAA Division III.

After finishing second in the conference last season, the Tigers earned a spot in the D-III national tournament in Wisconsin.

Nickle and Fujiyama are hoping this year will end with a trip to Michigan for the NCAA Division I tournament.

"Coming into the season, we’ve added a lot of depth gaining a bunch of new players," Nickle said. "Being ranked No. 1 has made people realize that we do have a water polo team here and we’re starting to see more and more people come out to our games."

Nickle said there were "about 10" players on the team her freshman season. This year, it has mushroomed to 24.

Fujiyama, a 5-foot-11 center who brings a physical presence to the pool, was one of the key additions.

The two won a state championship at Kamehameha in 2006 and are together again, hoping to win another title in college.

"I feel very good about our chances, especially since we return everyone from last year’s team," Fujiyama said.

The Tigers are 10-6, but have played a host of Division I schools and have a 13-12 overtime win over Cal State Bakersfield.

Last weekend, the Tigers lost 8-5 to UC Santa Barbara, the No. 11-ranked Division I team, and trailed No. 6 Loyola Marymount 3-2 at halftime before the Lions pulled in the second half.

"Our ability to sub I think has been the difference because we’re so much more deep than last year and can stay fresh," Fujiyama said. "I think we’ve done well against these Division I schools and it’ll definitely help us when we start conference play."

Nickle has been fortunate to have a Kamehameha teammate by her side the entire time she’s been in college. She played with Haley Rosehill for two years before Rosehill graduated. The next year, Fujiyama came in as a freshman.

Nickle hosted Fujiyama, who had offers from Bucknell and Hawaii, on her recruiting trip, which helped aid in Fujiyama’s decision to attend Occidental.

"(Karie) made my trip more enjoyable, but Occidental was just a perfect fit," Fujiyama said.

Nickle is one of four seniors on the team. The Tigers rarely stray far away from campus for road trips, but after qualifying for the Division III tournament last season, the team got to fly to Wisconsin to compete.

"It was a different experience playing in an indoor pool," Nickle said. "It was so loud with the echoes and it had that chlorine smell, which was gross."

Still, Nickle won’t mind experiencing it again if it means the team gets to play in Michigan. Normally, the SCIAC champion gets an automatic berth into the NCAA Division I tournament, but this season, the winner will play a representative from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for a berth in the Division I tourney.

"It’ll be a little harder, definitely, but it’s something I think we can do with all the experience we have returning and the new girls who are all really talented," Nickle said.

Occidental will play in the Lancer Invitational this weekend before beginning conference play on April 2.

The Tigers open with Pomona-Pitzer in the biggest game of the conference season. Pomona-Pitzer beat Occidental in overtime last year to win the SCIAC.

"We won’t have any time to warm up, that’s for sure," Nickle said. "That game is big to build the foundation for what we think can be a very successful year."

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