PHOENIX – Competing and coaching for one’s home country at an international level is an opportunity that doesn’t come around for everyone, but when the chance does, it’s special.
In September, ASU women’s water polo assistant coach Ethan D’Souza and freshmen Kat Featherstone and Ashley Ferguson were selected to play for their home country, Canada, at the World Aquatics Women’s U20 Water Polo Championships for the world crown.
“It was really fun getting to represent your country,” Featherstone said about competing in the event. “There’s definitely a special feeling of pride that you feel when you’re standing on the stage before a game and your national anthem is playing and you’re singing it with 12 other girls who are all there for the same goal of earning as high of a placement as you can and working together to make your country and yourselves proud.”
Every two years, roughly 300 water polo players under 20 years old come together from 20 countries to represent their respective junior national teams at the world event.
D’Souza, Featherstone and Ferguson traveled from the Valley to Coimbra, Portugal, to participate in this year’s competition, but for D’Souza, this wasn’t his first rodeo.
D’Souza began working with Canada’s water polo national program eight years ago after years of coaching club teams in Canada. He mostly worked as an assistant coach with the Men’s National Junior Team until last summer.
Now he works under the two-year cycle with the women’s U-19/20 National Team, starting with the Pan American Games the summer before the World Championships.
D’Souza, who served as the coach for Team Canada, feels grateful to be recognized and given the opportunity. Adding to the opportunity, two Sun Devils qualified for the team.
Although D’Souza has worked with Featherstone in the 2021 Pan American Championships, he hadn’t worked with Ferguson on an intimate level yet.
“Getting to know Kat on a deeper level was really rewarding,” D’Souza said. “And getting to understand Ashley and who she is and what she’s going to bring to this Sun Devil program right now is also very exciting. They’re two very sweet and hard-working girls, and I’m so excited to have another four years with them here.”
Featherstone, 18, has been playing water polo since she was 10 years old. Inspired by her mom who played, and with her boredom surrounding swimming, she knew she wanted more of a challenge.
“I think Ethan is a really good coach,” Featherstone said. “He brings a lot to the team and we had a great coaching staff with us at the tournament. They all worked really flawlessly and seamlessly with each other.”
Ashley Ferguson, 19, started her water polo journey at 12 years old, and like Kat, didn’t find competitive swimming exciting and wanted more of a team sport.
Featherstone and Ferguson had experience representing Canada internationally before the Water Polo Championships this year.
Featherstone was first coached by D’Souza during the U-19 Pan American Championships in 2021. During the U-17 National Championship League, her team came in second place with the help of her 52 goals, which were the ninth most in the under 17 league.
Ferguson won a gold medal at the Alberta Open in 2022 with the Quebec Provincial Team who she’s played with since 2018. She was also named Most Valuable Player last year on the U-19 team and had 21 assists in 13 games during the 2020 National Championship League.
“Getting to play those international teams is just an experience you don’t get ever,” Ferguson said. “Playing that high level of competition, it’s a great feeling and representing your country is not something many people do, and having the opportunity to do that with such a great team was just amazing.”
This year, Team Canada beat Chile and earned its best win against France before losing to Croatia in the classification match, finishing in 12th place at the World Championships.
Although it wasn’t the outcome the Canadians were hoping for, they fought until the very end.
“So many people counted us out for that game,” D’Souza said of the victory against France. “The girls really stepped up and had a big performance.”
Sophomore Juliette Dhalluin of ASU water polo represented France in the championships, so playing against a Sun Devil teammate whose senior team had more time to prepare, was a challenge.
“I think the most rewarding part was our win against France.” Ferguson said. “We had trained so hard and we put in so many hours individually and as a team. Just to beat a team that would get us to that top 12 and when we did, it was one of the best feelings.
It reminds me how much I love water polo, just winning those big games. That was just one of the moments that I’ll remember for the rest of my career.”
“There wasn’t a spot you could be in that game where you weren’t just feeling electric,” Featherstone said. “Whether you were on the bench, whether you were just jumping in, whether you were in the pool – that game, it was everything we had been working towards. It was such a big focus for us.”
Team Canada is a self-funded program and its qualifying athletes pay to represent their country in international competitions. D’Souza said his team had only 10 days to prepare for the championships, whereas other countries were practicing twice a day for two months due to the ability to make easier arrangements.
“To get a team that isn’t together and the size of Canada that’s so geographically big,” D’Souza said. “They don’t train together, they’re all in different parts of the country, all in various situations. They had to do a lot of training on their own. And so that was a challenge, trying to bring a team together in 10 days for a world championship.”
Featherstone said although not having the longest window of time to work together was an obstacle, the team displayed a lot of perseverance and resilience.
“We took advantage of every opportunity we had to train together,” Featherstone said. “I think we put a lot of effort into each of our practices, and I think that really transitioned once we were in Portugal playing.”
The difficulty for Ferguson came with having to bounce back from tough games and continuing on to the next game, all while trying to keep the energy high. But, having that “never give up” mentality is what helped them push through.
And they hope to bring that mentality into ASU’s season.
The Sun Devils water polo team recently began full-time training in preparation for the upcoming season. With nine freshmen and 13 underclassmen out of 21 players on the roster, the young team brings uncertainty.
D’Souza said he’s excited about the team’s potential.
“But we do need to spend some more time working together,” he said. “I think the ceiling can be very high, I think we’re a talented class. There’s a lot of unknowns, but the potential is very high.”
Featherstone and Ferguson are both excited for their first season at ASU. Although the training is an adjustment, they know it will help in the transition to future games at the collegiate level.
“I know in those tough games we’re going to look back on this and be like, ‘I’m really happy we trained this much,’” Ferguson said. “Because with all the strength and knowledge we’re getting from these practices, they’re going to be very useful in the future.”
With the upcoming 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, the Sun Devils will need to navigate the absence of a key player during the season.
Dhalliun is taking this season off to use her Olympic year and try out for the French Olympic team, which will leave ASU without its overall points leader in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation last year. Not having her on the team this year is a big hit, according to D’Souza. However, he remains optimistic.
“Us and the rest of the staff see the vision,” D’Souza said. “We just hope that we can grind it out as a team and make the right steps to where we know we can and will be.”
D’Souza said he uses water polo as a vehicle to teach what he believes are important traits to being an adult and a contributing member of society. He is passionate about teaching hard work, work ethic, how to work with compassion and empathy towards teammates and how to respect opponents.
They understand that moments like these don’t come around every day and eligibility is fleeting, but the respect and commitment D’Souza, Featherstone and Ferguson show to the sport is unwavering.
“What’s rewarding is to work with 13 intelligent, young, strong women that are so capable and successful,” D’Souza said. “I know they’re going to go on to do fantastic things. I learn every day just by being around them.”