For the second straight season, the Gilroy High and Santa Catalina girls water polo teams faced off for a third time, this time in the Pacific Coast Athletic League Mission Division championship on Oct. 27. Talk about a true rivalry. Just nine days earlier, Santa Catalina blew the Mustangs out of the pool with a 12-1 victory.
In the teams’ first league contest, Gilroy prevailed, 16-8. The winner of the rubber match would not only give it bragging rights, but an automatic berth into the Central Coast Section playoffs. In a superb match, Gilroy edged Santa Catalina 12-11 to secure a postseason berth in back-to-back years.
The Mustangs lost to a powerful Menlo School team last Saturday in the opening round of the Division II tournament, ending its season. However, Gilroy was simply playing with house money at that point, having already accomplished its goal of winning another league championship and clinching a playoff spot.
Despite losing five starters off last year’s Pacific Division-winning title team, Gilroy High showed it had the talent and work ethic to become champions yet again. After the final buzzer sounded against Santa Catalina, the Gilroy players and coaches celebrated like there was no tomorrow—and deservingly so.
“At the end it was a madhouse,” said Doug Pickford, who recently completed his fourth season as the Gilroy High coach. “People were jumping in the pool, and just seeing the look of joy on the kids’ faces makes the whole thing worth it.”
Per water polo tradition, the winning coach in a championship match receives a not so gentle shove into the pool, and Pickford was more than happy to oblige.
“For the coach, it’s always a cool thing because it means the team has won something important,” he said. “It was a wild scene. The stands were full and a lot of people were yelling the entire time. It was very polite and encouraging cheers, which made for a great atmosphere.”
Once again, the 1-2 punch of Dillania Barnett and Ellie Pickford proved decisive. Barnett scored six goals, Pickford had four and Alena Lepe had two in the match, which was tied at 9-9 entering the fourth period. Santa Catalina scored the first goal of the final quarter, but the Mustangs roared back to score three straight to take a lead they would never relinquish. Mustangs goalie Hannah Hoeptner recorded 16 saves, including several from point-blank range to demoralize Santa Catalina time and again.
“There was a point in the match where she blocked three straight shots in a matter of a six-second span,” Pickford said. “We get the ball back and score a goal at the other end, and that is such an emotional swing in a game like that. They would get a counterattack and Hannah would come up with a save.”
Pickford said the team’s blowout loss to Santa Catalina nine days earlier provided a nice lesson for his team.
“We were going for another undefeated league season, and I think we might have been a little bit overconfident,” he said. “First off, you give a ton of credit to Santa Catalina for beating us. … After the game, we talked about this being a recovery lesson and that our confidence didn’t need to be shaken because of one game. The girls decided they were going to let that one go, that it (the final score) was a fluke and we needed to throw it away.”
Alexa Bennett won the opening sprint-off before Gilroy put on a passing clinic, as the ball made its way to Ashlyn Fiack, Fatima Gonzalez, Pickford and Lepe, who was driving toward the cage and scored just 12 seconds into the match. Once again, Barnett used her physicality to overpower the opposition. The senior hole-set scored two of her six goals on sheer effort and determination, following up her own shot with a quick second shot.
“She decided to attack the goalie and twice took the ball from the goalie and pushed it into the cage,” Pickford said. “She’s a big, strong girl and really smart with her play.”
Pickford’s daughter, Ellie, is also a heady player. Ellie utilizes her speed to out-maneuver opposing players, a big reason why she entered the Menlo match with a team-high 84 goals, with Barnett close behind with 78. Although Gilroy fell to Menlo—which is a perennial CCS powerhouse—Pickford envisions a day in which the Mustangs won’t be satisfied just to make the section tournament.
“I wake up everyday with a vision we’re not there at CCS just to play, but we’re playing to win it all,” he said. “I’d like to think at some point—maybe not this year or even next year—we’ll be talking about our goal this year is to win a CCS championship, not just to show up to the party. I’m well aware of all the stops that will need to be taken to get there. It’s a long process, but I’m dedicated to seeing it through.”