They say big things come in small packages.
A hungry and determined group of girls from Orange County’s smallest public high school defied the odds, after being bumped up to CIF Division I this season, to become the county’s top water polo team, according to OCVarsity’s final regular season poll. The CIF ranking committee was not as kind, dropping Laguna to the number five spot in its final poll, behind three other OC teams.
Junior attacker Yoshi Andersen remembers feeling stunned after learning LBHS would compete this year in the top division of the nation’s top water polo region against schools as much as four times its size. “It’s a really great honor to be moved up a division,” she said, grasping for perspective. “It was bitter sweet news to me,” she conceded.
The decision left a bad taste for many in a program that had gone to the Division II finals the past two years, winning it all in ’09. With their experience and talent, they were all but sure to make it three straight and take home another CIF Division II plaque.
Suddenly the small fishes found themselves amid a pool of sharks that included Santa Barbara’s Dos Pueblos, the best team in the country. Plans for another title began to give way to a strategy for survival.
Then the season began. And with each passing week, the Breakers got better. They battled for wins over top D-I teams from Edison, Santa Barbara, Foothill and Los Alamitos, feasted on lesser D-I, D-II and league opponents. And they even took a swipe at the nation’s longest winning streak before falling 10-8 to Dos Pueblos to become their 48th-straight victim. “We always knew that we had a great team with lots of talent,” said Andersen, who is second on the team in both steals (54) and goals (58). “I think we’ve done really well.”
So well, in fact, that CIF’s pre-season decision seems prescient despite the school’s size.
Chad Beeler, Andersen’s elementary school PE teacher and director of Laguna’s age group water polo program, saw potential in the water-loving 8-year-old and convinced her to give the sport a try. “Anything that I can be in the water, I knew I would like it,” she said.
It was tough at first, and she even considered giving it up to concentrate solely on swimming. But she was drawn by the challenge and a chance to be part of a team with many friends. Now, after nearly a decade, “Water polo basically takes up my life,” she said.
Her friends and teammates then are still both friends and teammates. The entire starting line up for the Breakers came up together through the local age group ranks. Andersen credits Beeler with teaching her fundamentals. Fine points she learned from Ethan Damato, the LBHA head coach who also worked with Andersen and her friends as kids. “Not everyone knows how competitive and tough she is both in practice and in the games,” said Damato.
Laguna’s rise to the Division I ranks reflects the seaside community’s commitment to water sports and the age group program. Mentors and coaches like Beeler, Damato and Rick Scott, who led the Breakers to their first CIF title in 2001, played a role. But so do hard-working young girls like Andersen, who commit themselves to their sport.
For Andersen, her dedication to the sport took her full circle when she volunteered to help Beeler nurture the next crop of Breaker stars. “I think everybody should give back something,” said Anderson, who is also co-president of the LBHS Pink Ribbon Club, organizing a blanket drive for Hoag Hospital breast cancer patients.
The Breakers began post season play this past Wednesday. If they beat their first round opponent, they most likely will face CIF third-ranked Newport Harbor on Friday, Feb. 18 in Laguna’s home pool. To advance beyond the second round, Andersen and her teammates will need to play to their strength: defense. “If we shut down people, I know we have good enough offense to attack them and score,” said Andersen. “It’s just a matter of us putting our shots away.”
As Andersen and her teammates have proved all season, teams from small schools can achieve big things.