Much has been and will continue to be written and said about the 2014 Laguna Beach High School girls’ water polo team. And after all the tournament victories, historic wins, record scoring and just plain old-fashioned dominance, they have more than lived up to the considerable hype.
But through it all, this once-in-a-generation collection of talent has kept it all in perspective. “I don’t think they’re getting caught up in any of the other hoopla,” said Coach Ethan Damato. “I think they’re enjoying the season, and they want to win a CIF championship.”
If everything went according to plan against Los Alamitos this past Wednesday in CIF semi finals, then Damato’s team is one win away from capturing the school’s first ever Division I championship. CIF finals are Saturday, March 1, at Woollett Aquatics Center in Irvine.
With four freshmen, and as many sophomores (8) as juniors (6) and seniors (2) combined, Laguna entered Wednesday’s game 28-1, scoring a school record 471 goals. They’ve totaled 20 or more goals in a game 10 times, including victories over Marina 23-5 and Irvine 20-1 in the first two rounds of CIF.
Their lone defeat came in their 10th game. “The Foothill loss was a big part of our season,” said Damato. “I think we needed it to realize that we could be beaten if we didn’t play well.”
They have been playing with a single-minded purpose ever since. Before this year, Laguna had only beaten Newport Harbor once in 10 previous meetings dating back to 2008. This season, they beat Newport three times, including victories in the finals of the Holiday Cup and the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, a title Newport has never won, as well as the Sailors’ worst ever loss, a 13-1 thrashing in their own pool.
With so much talent, it’s tough to single out the Breakers’ most valuable player or players. But based on goals scored alone, two names rise to the top. Actually one name: Fischer, as in junior Makenzie, who has 120, and her sister Aria (75), one of two freshmen who start for Damato’s young squad. The other is Bella Baldridge, who is fourth in goals scored with 59.
Erich, the girls’ father, was an All-American water polo player at Stanford, earning all-tournament honors as a member of the Cardinal’s 36-0 1986 NCAA champions. Their mother Leslie played for Stanford women’s water polo team when it was a club sport.
Erich went on to compete in the 1992 Olympics. The U.S. team had just won the 1991 World Cup and was a favorite to medal in Barcelona, but they came up short, finishing fourth. He and Leslie had just gotten engaged, and when the games were over, he decided to put his competitive days behind him. “It was just time for me to move on,” Fischer said, reflecting on a “tough experience” in Barcelona that, over time, he has come to appreciate.
The newlyweds returned to Newport, where Fischer lived while training with the U.S. National Team. On a random trip, the couple stopped to explore the beauty of Laguna. Fischer remembers thinking “wow, this place is really special.”
They decided to stay. And now, 21 years later, they are enjoying watching their daughters compete in the sport the whole family has come to love. “I think the girls share that same passion for water polo that I have,” he said.
Fischer doesn’t remember his girls asking much about his playing days when they were growing up. And outside of a few team pictures, the Fischer house lacks Olympic regalia. Still, the girls knew much of their father’s history from family trips to Palo Alto and from times spent with his friends and former teammates. The rest they learned online. “We thought it was really funny that we Googled him,” said Makenzie.
Fischer coached both of his daughters in Laguna’s club program. But “he wouldn’t let me play water polo until I could swim,” said Makenzie.
“I had to prove that I was ready for it,” echoed Aria, who remembers having to beat a certain time to meet her father’s requirement.
Both girls eventually gave up other sports to concentrate solely on water polo. Between her club and high school squads, and the time she spends training as the youngest member of the U.S. Women’s Senior National team, it’s amazing Makenzie is still able to maintain a GPA somewhere north of 4.0. “It’s all about time management,” she said. “It’s actually not that bad when you just focus.”
Aria has been equally adept at time management, making the transition to high school while playing her way onto the starting roster of the top team in Division 1 and possibly the nation. “I always want to be the best in the pool. That’s what my dad taught me,” she said. “That’s kind of shaped the player I am today.”
Other than a few club games, this is the first time the sisters have played extensively on the same team. “I think that we can read each other really well,” said Makenzie.
“I like looking for her, and she likes looking for me,” said Aria. “We just sort of have this sister connection.”
One thing’s for sure. Damato is happy to have them both. Aria’s “the hungriest player I’ve ever coached,” he said. “She’s got a really healthy chip on her shoulder that drives her from that younger sister role.” And Makenzie’s “like a silent assassin. She’s got that killer instinct that’s pretty special.”
Both girls know they still have some unfinished business this Saturday in Irvine. “I’ve been thinking about CIF for a while now,” said Makenzie. “I’m really excited that it’s here.”
“We just need to focus on our goal and work together as a team, and hopefully we will come away with it,” said Aria.