Los Angeles Times

National pride

Annika Dries is doing what she loves best.

She's going at a hectic pace, but the former Laguna Beach High athlete will tell you she wouldn't want it any other way.

Six days a week, Dries' world revolves around women's water polo, a sport she began playing with Laguna Beach Water Polo Club and continued at Laguna Beach High, where she earned all-league and All-CIF honors. Now, she's playing at Stanford University and again this summer is on the USA Water Polo Women's Senior National team.

Earlier this month, Dries, a center, scored five goals in six games, as Team USA won the FINA World League Super Final Tournament July 3 in La Jolla.

Team USA defeated Australia in a shootout in the tournament final.

"It was very exciting," the 18-year-old, who joined the National team in 2009, said of the tournament. "We faced teams that had different styles of play and I got a lot of great game experience that will only help me in the future."

A year ago, Dries wasn't even out of Laguna Beach High when she made the National team. She played in every game of the World League tournament last year and following the tournament, continued to train with the team but ultimately didn't make the World Championship team roster. She said she instead competed at the 18U Junior World Championships.

This time around, a year through her studies at Stanford, Dries says she's a more settled player.

"I think I know more about myself after a year of college and I feel more in control of my position and role on the team," she said. "It's always a challenge to have school and other priorities, but I feel my ability to focus my energy and time towards different things has improved and this has helped in the transition from the college life into national team training and competition.

"Every day, each individual on the (National) team shows up to practice ready to compete and train. In the four weeks leading up to the tournament, the competition was intense at practice and this is what makes our team successful. As a national team athlete, I have to be ready to compete and work during every practice and game."

On the national team, Dries plays center, a position also played by Kami Craig, a 2008 U.S. Olympian who Dries said is considered to be one of the "top centers in the world," and by her Stanford teammate, Melissa Seidemann who also plays defender.

"It is great to learn from her and train with her every day," Dries said of Craig. "She (Melissa) is so strong and her ability to play both positions is a great asset. It has been fun to have a Stanford teammate around.

"During the Stanford season, depending on personnel and match-ups, Melissa would alternate between defending and setting while I stayed mainly in the center position. Sometimes we would play together, sometimes she would start, sometimes I would start — it all depended on the game."

In her first year at Stanford, Dries, who helped guide Laguna Beach to a CIF runner-up finish in 2007 and a CIF championship in 2009, the same year she was named the CIF Division II player of the year, played on a Cardinal team that was runner-up to the NCAA championship in May. Dries, who plans on majoring in Human Biology and designs to apply to medical school to become a doctor or researcher, said her first year on "The Farm" exceeded her expectations.

"I think I realized that Stanford was a special place even during the first week of class and practice," she said. "The ability to have a roommate from across the country, practice in stadium pool like Avery Aquatics Center, have an eccentric and delightful professor who writes well-known novels, and have great teammates and friends to support you —-all in one place — was quite the dream."

USA Senior Women's National head coach Adam Krikorian, who took over that role in 2009, vividly recalls watching Dries play high school polo while he was head coach at UCLA.

"I recruited her but she got away," said Krikorian who led UCLA to five consecutive NCAA championships before taking over the USA Senior Women's National Team. "I'll never forget the first time she caught my eye. It was about three years ago and it was at the Junior National Team tryouts. From Day 1, she surprised everyone. Here was this 15-year-old not only hanging with the Junior-level players, but excelling. That's what I remember about seeing her in the pool for the first time.

"From her first year on the Senior National team to this year, I think she has become more of a complete player. She's always had the size and speed but has become more rounded. She's a solid defensive player and a great center and has worked hard. She still has room to improve, and she'll be the first one to tell you that. The reason that she's gotten to this point in her career is because she's a hard worker. She's a very coachable kid and is very intelligent."

Dries and her teammates go through two-a-day practices six days a week, training at both Los Alamitos Training Base and UCLA. But on Saturday, the squad will receive a big announcement: Krikorian said that on that day, the names of the 15 players selected to the Senior National travel team roster will be revealed. Krikorian said the team will leave July 27 for Hawaii for up to five days of training before heading to train and play with the Australian Senior National Team for two weeks. The team will cap the trip by competing at the World Cup Aug. 17-22 in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Dries anticipates the announcement but in the meantime, Dries continues her focus in the pool.

"It's such a great opportunity to train with the best athletes in the nation and the world everyday at practice," she said. "Each person brings a different element and skill to the pool and that is what makes the U.S. such a force to contend with internationally — our depth. While we may have competed at the collegiate level, we all represent the U.S. which is a pretty inspiring and uniting force.

"Training at this level, I realized that the details, whether in practice or a game, are vital. By focusing on the little things and staying in the moment of what you are doing, you can always improve and learn. I love playing water polo. I feel this drives me to keep pursuing my dream of playing at the Olympics and continue the process of training and selection no matter what difficulties I face."

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