Gilroy water polo aims for splash impact

Ellie Pickford, Hannah Stelzner and Hannah Hoeptner have the Mustangs poised to contend for a Gabilan Division title. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The Gilroy High water polo teams have been put in an unenviable position this season—without a home pool to practice or play in, the Mustangs have a two-hour block for their varsity boys and girls and junior varsity boys squads to fit practice in at Christopher High, which was gracious in allowing Gilroy to use its pool. This was necessitated after a non-water polo accident at Gilroy High led to the closing of the pool for an indefinite period of time.

“We’re definitely operating under some challenging conditions,” Mustangs coach Doug Pickford said. “The good news is we’ve played at Christopher before and the fact that we practice there everyday makes it feel like our home pool. We’ve only played one game (as of Sept. 12) so identifying the effect it has on us is hard to say. It’s not without effect, let’s put it that way. … But we have an incredibly enthusiastic good group of kids and parents, and everyone is committed to make the most out of this season. We’re very grateful to have the opportunity to play this year.”

Pickford thanked Christopher for allowing the Gilroy teams to use its facility and said he’s had to get resourceful in trying to get all three teams to have productive practices crammed within a two-hour period. Even if there are 20 players in the pool at once, that means 14 players are out of the pool. That’s when it helps to have strong leaders on the team like co-captains Ellie Pickford and Alena Lepe.

“They help to pull the team together and make sure we’re always on task,” Doug Pickford said. “My attention can’t be on 34 kids (at once), so if I’m dealing with the boys group, for example, I’m going to need leaders on the girls team to be self-directive so we’ll still be productive without having to need a coach to be hovering over them. Ellie and Alena have really stepped up to fill that need.”

Lepe is a returning starter and a solid all-around player. Historically, Gilroy has been able to get the ball inside but unable to do much with it. Cognizant of that fact, Pickford has the Mustangs working on their inside water game, a necessity given they are playing in the upper Gabilan Division this season for the first time in a long time.

Gilroy is cautiously optimistic it can contend for a league championship, given it returned the majority of the team that won the Mission Division title last season. Returning standouts Hannah Hoeptner and Pickford are better than ever and earned all-tournament honors at the Stinky Rose Tournament in the first week of the season.

The Mustangs went 2-1 in that tournament to place third, and Hoeptner scored 11 goals in the three games. Possessing a cannon for a shot, Hoeptner knows how to drive the ball and is downright tenacious when she gets within scoring range.

“When she gets inside, she’s really tough,” Pickford said. “She’s going to keep fighting until she puts that ball in the cage. She sees what she wants and figures out how to get it done.”

Ellie is the only senior on the team and made marked improvement after playing club water polo for an 18-and-under team that had a nice run in the Junior Olympics.

“Her being on that team and seeing a different perspective and not always being coached by her dad was really valuable to her,” Doug said. “She’s such a smart kid and her awareness and understanding of the game when broadcast to her by other experts in a game rather than just by her dumb old dad really helped her game a lot. She’s become a very thoughtful player, communicates like a quarterback out there and isn’t afraid to lead, whether in a game-scrimmage or on the sidelines.”

The coach matches up Hoeptner and Ellie in practice to keep the two standouts sharp and give them a razor’s edge over their opponents in matches.

“I match them up in a constructive way to beat each other up and make each other better,” he said. “As a coach, you like to see the intensity from players like them.”

Pickford also praised the play of sophomore Bella Romero, who gives Pickford the option to use Hoeptner in the field since Romero plays solid in goal. Another sophomore, Hannah Stelzner, has boosted the team with her mental and physical toughness. Despite still being raw—Stelzner has little experience with ball sports—she brings an energy every team needs to be successful.

“She’s really a tough kid,” Pickford said. “While she hasn’t grasped all the nuances of the game as she is just starting out and doesn’t have the strongest arm, she has no quit in her. I love her toughness, and she embraces the physical nature of the game.”

Pickford also has high hopes for the boys team, which returns four players—Nate Cazares, Lucas Bissell, Race Thompson and Jacob Muncy—who proved instrumental on last year’s squad and made dramatic improvement during the club season playing for the Manta team coached by Pickford. Pickford said Cazares is “probably the best goalie in the area.”

However, Cazares is also a terrific field player and being that Gilroy has another goalie on the roster who can get the job done in sophomore Emmitt Silva, Pickford will use Cazares in goal and in the field, depending on how the team is doing and the matchup the opponent presents. Pickford said Silva has really elevated his game from a communication aspect, a crucial aspect of goalie play.

“One thing a goalie needs to be is a good communicator,” Pickford said. “He’s been a little shy in asserting himself, but he’s absolutely coming into his own. He’s graduated so fast in his ability and is physically gifted. He just needs repetition.”

Pickford liked the way Silva purported himself in the team’s 11-10 overtime loss to San Benito on Sept. 11, mentioning Silva “took command of the defense by positioning his defenders to his benefit.” Thompson happens to be a true ambidextrous athlete, which has made him dangerous from either wing.

That gives Thompson the ability to score goals in bunches and Pickford won’t be surprised when that happens during the season. Bissell, who did not play against San Benito due to a shoulder injury, is the fastest player on the team. Pickford expects Bissell to win the majority of the sprint face-offs—”When he’s back he won’t lose a sprint this year,” Pickford said—and he’s also shown a desire to improve and figured out ways to be more efficient in the pool.

“We’re really working as a group to turn opponents, drive around them and finish,” Pickford said. “The handful of boys I mentioned are all developing that skill and because of that not only are we an outside threat, but we’re an inside threat, too.”

Senior Nicki Franco also has the capability to score goals. Pickford said Franco possesses an unorthodox shot that is brutally effective. Junior Grant Rocha possesses the hardest shot on the team and simply needs more repetition in game-like situations.

“We need to get him open as many times as possible and have him take 10 shots a game,” Pickford said. “He has to figure out how to avail himself and get open because his arm is such a weapon. In practice he’s unstoppable, but in the game as it happens to all young players there is more pressure or a sense of pressure. We’ll need him to develop and perfect the shooting under pressure skills. … I have high hopes for this group. There is a lot of potential and the only thing that can stop them is themselves.”

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