What has long been considered a California sport, water polo is rising in popularity across the country in states, such as Connecticut, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Washington, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Tennessee, Utah, Illinois, Texas, Michigan and Oregon. In 2017, USA Water Polo reported non-California membership has by more than 4,000 members over a decade. The National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) also reported nationwide growth in women’s high school water polo, with a 7.9 percent increase in women’s water polo participation between 2011 and 2016. This was during a time when historically popular sports, such as football, volleyball and basketball, saw a decrease in varsity participation.
Despite positive growth, water polo is still fighting for sponsorship and funding at the collegiate level at NCAA and NAIA institutions. Women’s water polo has a scholarship limit per team of 8 for both NCAA Division 1 and 2. Water polo is an equivalency sport, which means college coaches have the freedom to award their scholarship budget however they see fit. This means student-athletes are far more likely to receive partial funding, as opposed to full-ride scholarships.
There are 107 women’s water polo colleges. California is home to nearly 76 percent of high school water polo players. While these athletes have the option of 29 collegiate women’s water polo programs outside of California, it’s likely that many of the 1,900 women who play college water polo after high school will be recruited by a local institution. While there are more women’s college water polo programs than men’s, women’s water polo remains one of the smallest women’s NCAA sports with a highly competitive recruiting process. Student-athletes will have to measure up to both local and international athletes, as college coaches spend just as much time recruiting talent from overseas as they do in the United States.
As a member conference of the NCAA, the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) sponsors 17 women’s water polo programs that compete within the NCAA and against CWPA member teams. These programs are situated in the Eastern region of the United States and divided into two divisions; Division 1 and Division 3. These programs benefit from the same perks of active NCAA members, including the opportunity to compete at the NCAA men’s water polo championship for the title of national champion.
Another member conference of the NCAA, the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) oversees 9 women’s water polo programs. These women’s programs include California State East Bay, California State Monterey Bay, Fresno Pacific, Mercyhurst and UC San Diego in the Western region and Gannon, McKendree and Salem in the Eastern region. All nine WWPA women’s water polo teams compete in matches against other WWPA teams and within the NCAA. At the end of the season, each team competes for the WWPA’s automatic bid to the NCAA men’s water polo championship at a WWPA-sponsored postseason championship tournament.
Division 1 water polo offers 34 women’s water polo colleges across both the East and West Coast, as well as Michigan, Indiana, Arizona and Hawaii. On the East Coast, student-athletes have the option of 14 programs located in Virginia, DC, New Jersey, New York, Maine, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. On the West Coast, all 15 women’s water polo programs are in the state of California.
While all Division 1 women’s water polo colleges compete at the same level, what differentiates the campuses where these teams are situated is the size of the student body. The colleges and universities located on the East Coast offer a smaller student body ranging from 2,000 and 8,000 students. On the West Coast, student-athletes will find much larger student bodies between 18,000 to over 30,000 students.
The NCAA has sponsored a women’s water polo championship to cap off the season since 2001. With so few women’s water polo teams, teams from all seven women’s water polo conferences, regardless of division, are eligible to qualify for and compete in the postseason champions. Starting with the 2019-20 season, Division 3 institutions no longer participate in the NCAA women’s water polo championship. Instead, Division 3 institutions now compete in the USA Water Polo Division 3 National Championship.
Women’s water polo is offered at 12 Division 2 colleges and universities. While many of these programs are in California, student-athletes also have a few East Coast options in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Ranging in size from 650 students at Salem International University to over 27,000 students at The University of California – San Diego, student-athletes looking for a small, medium or large campus have all three options at the Division 2 level.
All three NCAA divisions are eligible to compete in the NCAA women’s water polo championship at the end of each season. Division 3 water polo programs competed in their last NCAA postseason tournament in 2019. Moving forward, Division 1 and 2 women’s water polo teams will continue to go head-to-head at the NCAA championship tournament, while Division 3 programs will end their season with the USA Water Polo Division 3 National Championship.
There are 19 Division 3 women’s water polo programs spread across California, and in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York. Known for their small student bodies and core focus on academic over athletics, Division 3 water polo is demanding attention with the help of USA Water Polo.
Division 3 men’s volleyball earned an official NCAA sponsored Division 3 men’s volleyball championship in 2012, after hosting its own Molten Championship for 15 years. Following their lead, USA Water Polo teamed up with Division 3 water polo institutions to establish a Division 3 national water polo championship tournament May 2020. Developing this tournament not only allows USA Water Polo to recognize growth and encourage the future growth of varsity women’s water polo at other Division institutions, but the organization hopes to reach the same level of success as Division 3 men’s volleyball with their own NCAA sponsored championship.
In recent years, institutions like Azusa Pacific, Concordia University and Fresno Pacific have transitioned from NAIA to NCAA programs. As a result, the NAIA sponsors just 1 women’s water polo program at California State University Maritime Academy. A benefit of being the only NAIA program with no conference is that there are no limits on the number of games the team can compete in. Unfortunately, this also means that the NAIA does not sponsor a postseason championship. While Cal Maritime cannot compete for the NCAA women’s water polo champion title, the program can schedule games against NCAA programs.
The California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) governs 41 junior college water polo programs. Each CCCAA women’s water polo teams belongs to one of seven conferences across California. At the end of each season, the CCCAA hosts a women’s water polo state championship. CCCAA institutions range in student-body size from as small as 1,500 students to as large as 86,000, with an average of 12,300 students.
Student-athletes typically transfer out of CCCAA institutions to attend a four-year NCAA or NAIA institution where they can continue to compete in water polo and focus on academics.
Student-athletes prioritize several factors when looking for the right college fit. Is the school in their desired location? Does the institution offer a major in their area of academic interest? How large or small is the student body? Taking into consideration these factors, NCSA’s Power Rankings analyze data from IPEDS graduation rates and average cost after aid, and the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges. NCSA also includes data collected from student-athletes in the NCSA network. Using this data, we’ve ranked the best water polo colleges. The top 10 water polo colleges are below:
The NCAA releases its own women’s water polo ranks that can be found on the NCAA website.