Prep Girls Water Polo: Cougars, Mustangs undergo changes

Christopher's Malaya Santos drives the ball to the net during their Oct. 7 game against Gilroy.

GILROY—Change is in the water at Gilroy and Christopher High schools. At Gilroy, there’s a new skipper leading the Mustangs, and at Christopher, the Cougars are bracing for a tough test against new opponents in the upper Gabilan Division of the Monterey Bay League.
But neither team is backing down from the challenge.
The Cougars had a stellar ’14 campaign, finishing second in the Monterey Bay League-Pacific Division and boasting a 12-10 overall record. Christopher had both the league’s Sophomore and Freshman of the Year athletes with the honors going to Malaya Santos—who also earned won her freshman year—and Sierra Ceballos, respectively.
Though the prestige of moving up divisionally traditionally goes to the league champion—which was Stevenson—the Cougars were determined to have the strongest team moving forward and got the nod instead. And Cougar head coach Jim Shuster agrees with the decision.
Christopher’s varsity swimmers, who competed in the Central Coast Section championships in the spring, will anchor this year’s squad. Making things even sweeter is the already established chemistry. Santos and Ceballos swam on the 4×100-yard league champion relay freestyle team with newcomers Maria Higginbotham, a sophomore, and Emma Seery, junior, who will add to this already quick team.
“Speed-wise, we probably have a faster group than we’ve ever had,” Shuster said.
Shuster said he will also rely on the talents of players like Kylie Huddleston, a sophomore who was bumped up from JV, and Paige Gallardo as he fields his starting roster.
At Gilroy, the Mustangs are led by seniors Vanessa Marquez at goalie and Ariane Lussier, who has spent the summer training at a water polo camp. New coach Jonathan Montano said he’ll be leaning on his two veterans for leadership in the pool.
The new coach says he’s also excited about returning sophomore Mariana Bucio, who Montano is expecting to have a breakout sophomore season. On defense, the Mustangs will look to Lexi Pino, a transfer who played football at Sobrato last year.
“(Pino is) so aggressive and has a positive attitude,” Montano said. “I’ve seen her play against some of the boys and she can honestly take them…She’s going to be one of my biggest strong suits.”
Both squads are bringing a renewed sense of focus into this season. Given the strength of his team last year, Shuster said he allowed the Cougars to choose their positions and just have fun in the water. But not this year.
Christopher will take on unyielding opponents like Soquel, the Gabilan Division champ and runner-up in CCS last year. Because of the tougher competition, Shuster said the team will see a “more structured offense and defense.”
“We’re very nervous playing in the upper division,” Shuster said. “I think the girls will do just fine if they don’t talk themselves out of a win.”
Joining and assisting Montano at Gilroy High is Doug Pickford, who played and coached at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Pickford has been instrumental in helping the team condition and brings a wealth of water polo knowledge, Montano said. He’s hoping Pickford’s experience will help the girls notch a few more wins this season after their disappointing 1-11 finish last season.
As for the Cougars, Shuster said he is expecting big things. Though it will be tough, he said he’s expecting his team to flourish in the Gabilan Division and finish no worse than fourth in league. But he believes the team can do much better.
“The top two teams in the upper division go to CCS and that’s our goal is to be one of the top two,” Shuster said. “We want to go to CCS. We should’ve been there last year, but this year we want to go.”
Gilroy will open the season against Carmel at 3 p.m. Thursday. Christopher begins its season with a 4 p.m. game Sept. 10 against Aptos at home. 

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