Victoria Rose Meek, Cal Lutheran Water Polo Rise Like a Phoenix from Ashes of Thousand Oaks Shooting

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Cal Lutheran's triumph in the 2019 SCIAC final was a tribute to perseverance by many. Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran Athletics

It’s an inspirational tale that never gets old. Athlete faces adversity, athlete overcomes adversity, athlete enjoys success, team prospers. End of story. But in the case of Victoria Rose Meek, her family and the Cal Lutheran women’s water polo team, the story does not wrap up neatly with a snappy headline.

The murder of Victoria Rose’s brother Justin and eleven others in the Thousand Oaks mass shooting last November tore a gaping emotional wound that resists feel-good stories of stoic athletic heroism. But the Regals’ win a week ago in the final of the 2019 Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference women’s water polo tournament, where they upset a Pomona-Pitzer squad that had not lost an SCIAC match in three years, will play a part in the recovery process that flows from Justin’s senseless death.

“I never moved past it,” Victoria Rose said by phone last week. “I live with it and it still feels like it was yesterday—and we’re coming up on six months. Playing, and being with my teammates was a good distraction for me and it helped me channel my emotions in a positive outlet.”

That “positive outlet” will be extended to an NCAA play-in match later today, when Cal Lutheran faces Pacific at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center.

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Justin Meek. Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran

A two-time All-American now in her junior year at Cal Lutheran, a small, Division III institution 40 miles due west of Los Angeles, Meek experienced first-hand the horrors visited on the Borderline Bar and Grill last November. She was there with Justin, a recent CLU graduate who served as both promoter and occasional bouncer at the country-western bar popular with the college’s students. In the flash of senseless violence that ultimately tore apart so many families, Victoria Rose got out. Justin didn’t.

[2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament Bracket Announced]

Brother and sister were enjoying a night out before traveling that weekend to San Diego for a celebration of their father’s retirement after four decades of U.S. Naval service. The Borderline shooter stole that satisfaction and much, much more from Meek and others. But her coach, Craig Rond, pleaded that the carnage end.

I just said: I get it, Victoria Rose,” Rond said of a conversation late last year. “The shooter took away twelve people and took your brother from you. Don’t let him take anything else.”

Rededication and Preparation

A glint of hope was nurtured—in the pool, in the weight room, and with teammates new and old, and Victoria Rose recommitted herself to her sport. A key addition to the Lancers line-up was Rond’s daughter, Lexi. Formerly a star high school player at Agoura High School, less than ten miles from CLU’s Thousand Oaks campus, Lexi had endured her own challenges, taking a year off—and a mental break—from the game she loved.

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Victoria Rose Meek ( cap #5). Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran Athletics

Transferring from Santa Barbara Community College, she was determined to fit in with her father’s program, one that had narrowed the talent gap with a dominant Pomona-Pitzer program, but had not beaten the Sagehens in three years. With a new attitude and talent to match—she led the Regals in goals this season—Lexi was the perfect addition to an experienced CLU line-up.

First, the newcomer had to prove she could fit in, especially given her connection to the Regals’ coach.

“I am treated the same as all the girls at practice with no preferential treatment,” Lexi said in an interview last week. “If I make a mistake, I hear about it and if I do something good, I hear about it. I know it is important…to be fair and equal to everyone—which is important to me too.”

On Sunday, April 28, at Haldeman Pool in Claremont, CA, the CLU women’s team faced host Pomona in a second-straight SCIAC final. Last year’s championship was no contest—the favored Sagehens swept to a decisive 8-2 win, its seventh straight over the Regals, and claimed yet another conference title—the program’s second straight and fourth since 2013.

This year, even though Pomona had stretched its string of success against conference opponents to 35-straight, their dominance was not total. A narrow one-goal victory against fourth-seed La Verne in an SCIAC semifinal on Friday had underscored Pomona’s vulnerability. And after winning their own semifinal over #3 seed Whittier, Victoria Rose and her teammates found themselves in the unexpected position of rooting for their rivals.

“We didn’t want anyone to think we were winning [the conference] by default in playing La Verne,” she said. “[W]e were hoping we would get to play Pomona because they had been our rivals for so long.”

[On The Record with Craig Rond, Head Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach for Cal Lutheran]

Coach Rond prepped his players, reminding them, “Nobody wins forever. Somewhere along the way, you have to lose. And if anyone’s gonna beat [Pomona], it’s gonna be you.”

The Match of a lifetime

In the title match, with a lead almost halfway through the final period—albeit by a single goal—Pomona Head Coach Alex Rodriguez had to be confident in his experienced squad, which included nine upperclassmen, seven of whom are seniors. For three years, Pomona had been invincible in SCIAC play. But now, with a combination of naiveté, fearlessness and determination hardened by disappointment, it was Cal Lutheran who had the goods when it counted most.

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Cal Lutheran goalie Bailey Meyer. Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran Athletics

That, and some creativity on the part of their coach. At his team’s pivotal moment, Rond was a genius of sorts. At the six-minute mark, he inserted Lexi back into the line-up. The freshman with 57 goals was in the water for the first time with Meek—the player she had split playing time with at the center position throughout the course of the season.

Now down a goal to the defending two-time champs in their home pool, Rond positioned his daughter on the perimeter in hopes she could sneak the equalizer past Pomona senior Morgan Stockham, the conference’s top goaltender.

Lexi did just that, hammering a shot past the Pomona keeper with Victoria Rose fighting off defenders in front of the Sagehen cage to make the score 9-9 with 4:37 remaining. The Regals fought off a Sagehen power play, and at 3:18, Christin Hirn, like Victoria Rose, a junior who had never beaten Pomona, beat Stockham.

10-9 Cal Lutheran.

Victoria Rose described the scene: three minutes to go with the thinnest of leads.

“We were all really calm,” she said. “It felt like we were in control of the game the whole time…. It definitely was something that we all wanted, but I didn’t feel anxious, like we were waiting forever for the final buzzer to go. I was like: Let’s just get this game over with.”

The one tasked with preserving that lead, one who knew this could be the very last match of her college career, now had to do her part. Cal Lutheran goalie Bailey Meyer was ready.

“The first thing I thought was ‘Ok we have the lead don’t lose it,’” Meyer said in an email. “All I could tell myself was this was going to be the final minutes of my SCIAC career and if I didn’t leave this pool knowing I had given it everything I know I would look back on it.”

She—with an assist from the Lancer goalposts—lived up to her demands, fighting off her anxiety.

“When we had possession in the last minute and realized they had another 30 seconds to rebuttal and take the lead…, we all got ready defensively, but when the ball was turned over back to us and for the last 15 seconds it came down to protection, I felt a wave of calm.”

Mentioning her father Robert, who passed away a decade ago, the First Team All-SCIAC honoree added, “We all knew why we were there, we all knew what just happened, even before the buzzer rang. When it did, that was the realest emotion I had felt since my father passed away, and I mean that.”

Then, bedlam—of the water polo sort. Hugging, jumping in the pool, and tears. Lots of tears.

Coach Rond remembers it well. “After the victory was—the whole bench was crying, our girls were overcome with emotion—but one of the first people I saw was [Victoria Rose’s] mother in the stands right behind the goal, just sobbing like you can’t even picture. I told her: I think Justin pulled a couple of strings for us up there.”

And in the aftermath of a satisfying victory, of course there’s yet another challenge: a game against Pacific, the country’s eighth-ranked team.

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Bench dedicated to Justin Meek on Cal Lutheran campus. Photo Courtesy: Cal Lutheran Media Relations

No matter what happens later today—win, lose, succeed, fail, laugh, cry—a stark reality persists. The twelve lives stolen that tragic day last November can never be reclaimed. But the outsized presence that was Justin Meek—and by all accounts it was formidable—will never be extinguished.

“I think that my brother was watching over us [during] that game; I felt his spirit in all of our spirits,” Victoria Rose said. “I could hear him cheering from above.”

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1 comment

  1. avatar
    Rennia and John Meek

    Thankyou, Thankyou for sharing such a beautiful and positive summary of both the game, the challenges and the raw emotion felt by all…players, coaches and fans. We are so impressed by our great niece, Victoria Else’s strenth of character in the midst of such pain and loss. Thankyou all to the CLU community for being “family” and support during such a time. The world notices…

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