Christopher water polo a splash hit

Chris Critzer is having another standout season for the Cougars. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Despite finishing in last place in the Gabilan Division last year, the Christopher High boys water polo team has plenty of legitimate reasons to feel good about an imminent turnaround. Before starting league play last week, the Cougars defeated South Valley rivals Live Oak, San Benito and Sobrato, an impressive run of performances that showed they just might be the premier team locally.

The Christopher girls, meanwhile, have proven themselves to be a stalwart in the Gabilan after a 7-5 finish in league play in 2017. Both teams are eager to excel this season. The boys squad is ready to have a breakout season, as Paul Wells—the coach since the program’s inception approximately 10 years ago—expects the players to raise up their level of play.

“This is probably the best and balanced team we’ve had here,” Wells said. “We’re incredibly deep in talent, and one day we want to run with the big dogs like the Soquel and Santa Cruz’s of the world.”

Christopher returns most of its core group from 2017, starting with Alex Freudig, a driver who possesses an arsenal of shots and is strong on the 6-on-5 advantage. Junior Chris Critzer is the fastest swimmer on the team and excels in the sprint-off. Critzer, who plays the two position, or left flat, has been either the first or second leading scorer on the team. Senior Nolan Ciccone, who plays the three spot, or point, is a dynamic playmaker and solid two-meter defender.

“He’s more or less our playmaker,” Wells said. “He’s got a good feel for the game and knows how to get open. He makes things run.”

Senior Justin Garrido has a strong understanding of the game, knows how to shoot effectively and possesses strong swimming skills. Another senior, Matt Nelson, has a laser for a shot and plays in the two-meter area as an offensive threat. The Cougars have a strong goalie in Jack Miles, whose quick reflexes and long arms make him difficult to score on if the defense surrounding him is sound.

“He can get higher and farther to the corners to block shots,” Wells said. “We’ve got really good players on our first rotation and a number of younger but promising players in the second and third rotations, so the future looks bright. It’s very unusual for a team in the South County to have the depth we have.”

The Christopher girls are always solid, and despite graduating nine seniors—including five starters—the Cougars are set for another strong season. Just like Wells, girls coach Kelly Coleman runs a solid program and has visions of one that contends for league championships year after year.

Despite graduating five starters, Christopher returns junior utility players Nicole Critzer and Kaylee Kiner. Critzer has tremendous speed, is a prolific goal scorer and makes sound decisions in the pool.

“Nicole is amazing,” Coleman said. “She’s a jack of all trades player.”

Kiner is also a strong swimmer and offensive threat. Three returning players who didn’t start a year ago but saw significant playing time—Melissa Escamilla, Maddie Foster and Emma Holm—will be counted upon to be strong in the pool and make an immediate impact. Escamilla plays hole-set, two meter and utility, and Foster and Holm play utility as well.

“We graduated all of our main hole-sets, goalie and defense, so right now we’re working with a lot of utility players who can do a lot of different things,” Coleman said. “Melissa is physical, and Maddie and Emma are lefties so we’ll have three lefties on the varsity, which is pretty awesome.”

Sara Starks looks to be another solid player at the hole-set position, while Madeline Clark and Kyara Gilbert are newcomers who are expected to make a strong contribution. Coleman is also high on freshman Helena Santos, sophomore Kate Craig and Sabrina Fox.

“Helena is aggressive and will be very good,” Coleman said. “She’ll be a great field player. She is new to the team and a really fast swimmer.”

Even though the Cougars will be a team in transition and growing at the start of the season—“We’re putting people in new positions and seeing what their strong suits are,” Coleman said—by the end of the season they could be formidable.