Despite not having a swimming background, Erika Cates tried out for the water polo team in her freshman year. When Cates made that decision, she didn’t think it would lead her to playing for a college years later. But that’s exactly what the Gilroy High senior will be doing at Salem University in West Virginia.
Cates had a signing ceremony April 30 inside the Gilroy High library, and it was a big reward for all of the hard work she’s put inside and outside the pool the last four years.
“There were other offers, but this one seemed like the best option because of the opportunities they were giving me and how the schedule was so convenient,” said Cates, referring to the fact she’ll be able to take some online classes that will allow her to spend more time with family back home compared to the typical college student who attends college out of state.
Cates had a stellar career, capped off by a senior season that saw her earn Monterey Bay League Pacific Division Most Valuable Player honors after she finished with 85 goals, 61 assists and 86 steals. One of the best moments in the program’s recent history came when the Mustangs blasted Santa Catalina 13-5 in the Pacific Division playoff tournament championship game.
Gilroy was expecting a tough game, since it beat Santa Catalina by just one goal in both of the teams’ regular-season contests—both coming in the last 30 seconds, no less. However, Cates scored 16 seconds into the game, igniting a run in which Gilroy scored the first six goals of the game.
“Before they knew what hit them, we were up 6-0,” Mustangs coach Doug Pickford said. “Sixteen seconds into the game, Erika gets in the hole set, the pass comes in and she turns and throws a wicked bar down (shot) into the goal. You can see Santa Catalina was thinking, ‘What the heck was that?’ We had prepped Erika for us to win, she had to get in proper position to shoot 12 times. That’s the memory I’ll always have, was the attitude that Erika, Ashley (Harding) and Katelyn (Brolin) had to lead the way. It was one of, ‘You know what? We’re here to win and we’re not going to take any guff from anybody.’ They took it right at Santa Catalina, and it was epitomized by that first 16 seconds.”
Pickford was effusive in his praise for Cates, classifying her as a player who “knows how to use her leverage and strength to intimidate opponents and move them in the water.” Cates routinely displayed a workmanlike mentality in the pool, always playing with a controlled aggression and never giving in.
“Erika is a really strong kid who doesn’t crap from anybody,” Pickford said. “If you watch a game, you can see sometimes the looks on the other girls’ faces of, ‘I’m not sure I want to guard that kid.’ It’s because Erika gets after it. Water polo is not a game of nice. In high school, not everyone understands that. As you get to more elite levels of water polo, the game is definitely challenging, rough and physical. People who accept and embrace that have a better chance of moving forward in the sport. Erika embodies that and is definitely a tough kid.”
As a way to test and measure Cates’ mental toughness and physicality, Pickford had Cates practice against players from the boys team.
“Most of the time she came out on top,” Pickford said.
Cates possesses a rifle for an arm, and she often placed shots with tremendous accuracy to go along with tremendous speed. Cates grew up playing softball and tried out for water polo in her freshman year because she was intrigued by the sport. However, after what she deemed a subpar freshman season, Cates wondered if she would ever excel in the sport. Turns out all she needed was a bit of guidance, and that came in the form of Pickford, who became the Gilroy coach in Cates’ sophomore season.
“Coach pushed me to be a better player,” she said. “I started wanting to do better and eventually got better.”
Pickford said Cates is the complete package, a self-sacrificial person in life and demonstrative and demanding in the pool.
“She’s such a rare breed in that as tough and competitive as she is in the water, outside of the pool she is kind, considerate and goes on mission trips to help the less fortunate,” Pickford said. “Clearly, she is someone who knows how to turn on the switch for water polo, but it doesn’t define who she is outside of the water.”