by Keith Peters

The first two years of girls’ water polo at the Central Coast Section championships saw Menlo School and Castilleja pretty much dominate the Division II level. Menlo won the first two section finals ever held while Castilleja finished runnerup both times.

Last season, Lynbrook added its name as a power–swimming off with the CCS Division II crown with a one-point goal over Castilleja, which had eliminated Menlo in the semifinals.

That universe, which is girls’ prep water polo, is growing ever larger these days. Certainly, it’s no longer a two or three-team race for postseason honors.

“I don’t think there’s one dominant team out there,” said Randy Whitchurch, the only CCS coach to finish second in the section tournament three straight years. “The entire CCS has evened out. I think that is what’s going to make it exciting.”

Whitchurch’s years as a bridesmaid at Castilleja are over, if for no other reason than the veteran coach is no longer at the Palo Alto school. Whitchurch now is the director of aquatics at Sacred Heart Prep. While he will oversee the school’s new $1 million-plus pool once it’s completed next month, his job description also includes making sure there are talented teams to use the facility.

While the Sacred Heart Prep girls’ water polo team has yet to practice in the new pool, the aquatics center will be a fitting showcase for the Gators this season. Sacred Heart opened the season 4-0 and has ever reason to believe it can contend for a CCS title this year.

The Gators lost only one senior off last season’s 10-10 team. They return every key member, plus have a new coach in Whitchurch and a new starter in his daughter, Katie, who transferred from Palo Alto.

“We have experience and confidence,” said Randy, who sees his team as one of eight that could challenge for section honors. “We have talent, work together and don’t have one star who we rely on.”

Sacred Heart does have seniors Marissa Muller, Adrianna Irvine, Kristin Schaller, Erin Shumm and Justine Walker. Add in Whitchurch, an experienced and talented player, and that’s the making of a contending team. Goalie duties will be shared by juniors Alex Jamieson and Glynn Connolly. Adding depth will be juniors Rachel Samuels, Courtney Loomis, Jennifer Whelan, Sara Spieker, Catie Paton and Keri Holloway.

Sophomore Diana Livermore also could be a future standout in goal.

Sacred Heart will receive its next tough test of the season this weekend in the 22-team MacDonald Invitational, hosted by Menlo School. The Gators will compete in the same pool bracket as Marin Catholic, which defeated Menlo School last weekend at the annual Novato Tournament.

Menlo School finished fifth out of 36 teams, winning three of four matches. Senior 2-meter standout Julie Gardner led the Knights with 12 goals, with junior Rachel Saal adding 11 and senior Jenny Booth eight.

Menlo coach Kyle Utsumi has 10 returning players, including five starters off last season’s 21-7 squad that failed to reach the CCS final for the first time in three years. The Knights, however, have plenty of experience and depth to make another run at its fourth straight GPSL crown and another section title.

Gardner, who scored 69 goals last season and earned third-team All-America honors, will be one of the dominant players in the CCS.

“We will use Julie to our advantage,” Utsumi said, “but we need others to score.”

Goalie Megan Hubbs is back after earning second-team All-CCS honors. Three-year varsity standout Devon Watts also will provide leadership. Junior Courtney Welsh and sophomore Marianne Kixmiller also will start, with junior Megan Merwin a key reserve. Menlo will open tourney play this weekend in the same bracket as Menlo-Atherton.

From Palo Alto Weekly