Gilroy water polo building success

Ellie Pickford will be key for the Gilroy High girls water polo team this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Gilroy High water polo coach Doug Pickford has visions of building a program where both teams are consistent and competitive. The Mustangs are seemingly well on their way there. The girls team is coming off an undefeated league season, while the boys team returns all but one starter off a team that went 4-6 in the Pacific Division in the 2017 season.

The Mustangs are ready to make a move up in the newly formed Pacific Coast League Mission Division, but competition will be fierce. Gilroy’s sophomore dominated squad has just one senior on the roster in Nik Marquez; however, that shouldn’t prevent the Mustangs from contending for a division title this season. That’s because in addition to Marquez they have talent in returning players Nate Cazares, Jacob Muncy and Nicky Franco. Cazares is a returning all-league goalie, and played on the 16-and-under Manta club team that finished in third place in the bronze division of the Junior Olympics this past summer. Cazares, a junior, possesses speed and is an all-around threat who will also play a field position.

“He is a real goalie and that makes a huge difference,” Pickford said. “He can get out and block 90 percent of the shots thrown at him. He’s a quick thinker so we’re going to have him try to split time between the field and the cage, without sacrificing so much so it’ll be a good tradeoff for us.”

When Cazares is not in goal, sophomore Muncy figures to be in the cage. When Cazares is out in the field, he will make the team faster and smarter. The tradeoff for having Cazares out in the field only works because Muncy has the ability to be solid in the cage.

“Jacob has arms as long as an albatross,” Pickford said. “He’s a big, smart kid who we’ve been developing. He’s not there yet, but he’ll be something special some day.”

Nicky Franco, a junior and returning second-team all-league player, has strong leadership skills in the pool along with a tireless work ethic. Pickford raved about Franco’s conditioning, laser shot and knowledge of the game. A talented sophomore class—including Ben Anderson, Lucas Bissell, Ethan Novak, Race Thompson, Grant Rocha and Nate Barbaglia—have the potential to be downright special in a couple of years if they keep on working hard, Pickford said.

“They all have similar level of talents and are good friends,” Pickford said. “You look at their trajectory from their freshmen year and carry that forward and they’ll be something special to watch.”

The girls team graduated five starters, four of which were first team all-league players last season. Out of the 13-player roster, Gilroy has just one senior and one junior. The rest are freshmen and sophomores, which is a great problem to have because it means younger players are coming into the program and getting experience.

“The kids are enthusiastic and willing to give this sport a shot, and hopefully they keep with it all four years,” Pickford said. “That’s when you become a powerhouse, when you get the kids to make water polo a priority.”

Every summer, one of Pickford’s goals is to attract an abundance of incoming freshmen to play water polo. The coach runs a free summer clinic/program intended to introduce the sport to those who might not be aquatic oriented.

“That way water polo is not so intimidating and the players can hit the ground running a little bit if you will,” Pickford said.

Gilroy returns senior captain Dillania Barnett, a returning second team all-leaguer.

“She’s a big, strong kid who will be a force and our primary two-meter set,” Pickford said. “I suspect she’ll give more than a few teams fits as they try to cover her in the hole.”

Junior captain Ellie Pickford is also a returning second team all-leaguer and made tremendous improvement after playing in the off-season, including with her club team in the Junior Olympics. Pickford, whose club team finished in the top 24 in the gold bracket, is capable of playing excellent two-meter defense while also having the skills to be a potent driver.

“Ellie has really blossomed into a leader, is very aggressive and knows the game really well,” Doug Pickford said. “We will rely on her and Dillania to help the younger kids play the game.”

Returning sophomores include Ashlyn Fiack, Alena Lepe and Hannah Hoeptner. Alexa Bennett, a Christopher transfer, also has previous game experience. The Mustangs also have seven freshmen who are new to the sport but showing capability.

“They’re raw and I love them to death because their enthusiasm is absolutely sky high,” Pickford said. “I think we’ll be able to compete, but our Achilles heel is we do not have a returning goalie. We’re attempting in real time to figure out who will be our goalie.”

Hoeptner and freshman Isabella Romero are two players Pickford is trying to groom as goalies; however, the two have never played the position before so it’ll take time for them to develop. They both have shown flashes of potential and a great attitude to bring them this far. Of the 35 total players in the program—encompassing the boys and girls varsity and girls junior varsity teams—27 of them are freshmen and sophomores.

“The over-arching story of Gilroy water polo is it’s about playing for the long run,” Pickford said. “We’ve never had close to this many kids out here before. You combine the numbers along with the fact that in 2020 we will have a brand spanking new pool, and Gilroy will be a team to keep an eye on. While this year we will compete and do our best, the dream of what I’m trying to build here is a program of sustained excellence. We want to be a contender year in, year out and not a one year flash in the pan.”

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