All sweetness and fight

The double life of Cortney Collyer is in its final days.

Monday's sunrise will, in fact, bring an end to the ambiguity that now resonates between her girl-next-door appearance and the single-minded ruthlessness of her championship soul.

When the last droplet of chlorine-saturated pool water is toweled off following a historic weekend she and her UC Irvine women's water polo teammates will experience in Ann Arbor, Mich. Collyer will return to school, finish work toward her business economics degree and look for real-world venues in which to make a splash.

"Yeah, it scares me," Collyer, UCI's Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year, said of the oncoming closure of an athletic existence that has both inspired and confounded those who have encountered the polite, demure, quintessentially Californian student-athlete away from the pool.

But just add water and Collyer becomes a swirling, surging liquid force that is usually lethal to the hopes of Anteaters' opponents.

Designated by Coach Dan Klatt as the team's lockdown defender, Collyer led the team with 49 steals in the regular season. But she also is tops on the Big West Conference regular-season and tournament champions in assists (30 in the regular season). Her 41 goals rank third on the squad.

Collyer's well-rounded prowess, which includes strong leadership on a team loaded with freshmen and sophomores, has helped No. 7-ranked UCI (21-8) earn the program's first NCAA Tournament berth.

The Anteaters, who have won seven straight and 11 of their last 12, are the No. 5 seed in the eight-team tournament that runs Friday through Sunday. UCI will face No. 4-seeded and No. 4-ranked USC (18-6) in the quarterfinals, Friday at the University of Michigan at 4:30 p.m. PST.

UCI, which competed in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation during Collyer's freshman campaign, has won the Big West Tournament the last three seasons.

This season is the first in which the Big West Tournament champion received an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

USC, the two-time defending NCAA champion, trounced UCI, 14-4, on March 12 in their only meeting this season.

But Collyer, the Big West Tournament MVP and a two-time first-team all-conference honoree, said the Anteaters, though admittedly anxious about the novelty of the national stage, have nothing less than a national championship on their mind as they approach the final weekend, at which each team is assured three games.

"I honestly feel inside that it's a possibility," said Collyer, who knows what it takes to win championships.

In four varsity seasons at Santa Barbara High, she was part of three CIF Southern Section Division IV title teams. And, Klatt believes, it is no coincidence that UCI's three Big West crowns have all come with Collyer in the starting lineup.

"In the Southern Section, CIF championships have a good amount of fans and they are pretty big-time games," Klatt said. "So, she came in with a mentality of knowing how to perform in those games and win. She has had a great three-year run [in which] she has been good in the [Big West Tournament] final every single year. I know she scored four goals last year, as well as this year and she may have scored three or four goals in the final her sophomore year."

Collyer, who said competing in the Junior Olympics for her Santa Barbara club program added to her big-game exposure, said she long ago learned to embrace the spotlight that championship games invite.

"You learn to control your nerves and basically use your nerves to drive you and push you rather than slowing you down and making you scared," Collyer said.

Similarly, Collyer has learned not to shy away from the physical demands of the sport, particularly challenging for a 5-foot-7 player regularly matched up with taller, thicker rivals who represent the opponents' leading offensive option.

"She's a great defender," Klatt said of Collyer, whose determination surfaces when asked about her fondness for doing the dirty work necessary to battle other team's centers.

"It's more fun for me to shut someone down than to score myself," said Collyer, who noted that growing up with an older brother helped prepare her for taking a beating in the pool.

"Water polo is pretty rough, but I'm pretty tough," Collyer said. "But [defense] its also about being smart. I watch video so I'll see what [opponents] are going to do and I'll know how to defend that. You have to have passion for what you're doing and be basically more mentally tough than anything else."

Collyer laughs when asked about the difference between her competitive personality and her everyday manner out of the pool.

"I am a nice person and stuff, but when you're in a game, you don't even … It's instinct; whatever it takes to win. You have to show some dominance and, I guess, make them afraid of you kind of."

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World