GIRLS WATER POLO MID-SEASON REPORT: Lady Lancers look to stay perfect in Freeway League play and win another title for a fifth straight year

Utility+player+sophomore+Hannah+Reekstin+looks+to+pass+the+ball+to+her+teammate+during+a+Jan.+24+practice+at+the+Sunny+Hills+pool.

Henry Lee

Utility player sophomore Hannah Reekstin looks to pass the ball to her teammate during a Jan. 24 practice at the Sunny Hills pool.

Henry Lee

Coaches: Keith Nighswonger (head coach), Riley Godfrey (assistant coach), Jordan Jaime (assistant coach)

Top Returning Players: Kristima Aryal (12), Kayla McCuen (12), Natalie McIlveen (12), Hailee Pike (12), Mary-Grace Rovira (12), Sofia Smith (11) 

Top Newcomers: Katelyn Fu (10), Hannah Reekstin (10), Brooke Shiohama (11)

Last season: The Lady Lancers finished first place in the Freeway League with a 6-0 record and 7-0 record overall. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, CIF officials did not allow any sports teams to advance to the playoffs.

Outlook: Returning this year with a full schedule of nine league games, the girls water polo team aims to win the Freeway League title for the fifth year in a row with an unblemished record. 

“These players want to make sure we win because they don’t want to be the team that didn’t win,” Nighswonger said. “To a certain extent, it’s OK for them to feel that pressure, but it can’t become something that you’re obsessed with because it overtakes you, and you begin to doubt yourself.”

Co-captain goalie Rovira, who’s been with the Lady Lancers since her freshman year, said she has come to accept the challenge of maintaining the level of success for this season.

“Every year I’ve won, so I guess I have put this expectation on myself – [to] win because you don’t know how to lose,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure from the coach to keep winning, but there’s also a lot of pressure coming from ourselves to just play the best.”

Before league play started Jan. 4, the newly placed Division 2 team competed in several tournaments featuring division opponents like El Dorado High School and Canyon High School — both in Division 2.

“[The tournament teams] are definitely a challenge because you’re playing people in the same division as you,” Rovira said. “I’m glad though because it forces us to play at a way higher level than we might play with just a league team.”

After CIF officials evaluated Sunny Hills’ records from its 2018 and 2019 seasons, they moved the Lady Lancers up this season from Division 3 to Division 2. 

But that hasn’t affected the team’s mentality because it lost by small margins to the top level teams during the tournament, Rovira said.

“I think those small loss deficits just prove that we are good and as capable as our wins say we are,” she said.

Nighswonger has also seen his players’ motivation rise as they prepare to compete against other Division 2 squads once CIF playoffs begin. Competition dates have yet to be announced.  

“I don’t have to worry about them missing practice because every one of them is always going to be there,” he said. “They’re very determined and very motivated to be good, so that’s more than half the battle right there.”

Utility player Smith said she has noticed her teammates have improved communication from past seasons, which will be a key factor in winning games during league play as well as in CIF playoffs.

“The team has faced adversity and crucial learning experiences throughout our preseason,” she said. “I trust that our training and effort in practice, along with the plays coach Nighswonger has created for us, will lead us to great success this season.”

For their third league game of the season on Jan. 12, the Lady Lancers (3-0 in the league and 20-7 overall) came out on top 19-2 against the Troy Warriors (0-4 in the league and 1-17 overall)

“I’m really excited about the way we’re [playing] right now,” Nighswonger said. “We’re trying to keep everybody healthy from COVID-19 and as long as we do that, I think we’re going to be in really good shape for the rest of the season.”

With a milestone of winning over 1,000 career boys and girls water polo games under his belt Dec. 2, Nighswonger said he wants to focus more on how his players are going to perform by the end of the season.

“This is a good team, and depending upon how the rest of our league develops this year, I think we have a really good chance of winning that fifth straight [Freeway League title],” he said. “But in terms of how I look at the season, if we get beat playing our best, it’s hard to feel too bad about that.”

Despite moving up a division in CIF, Nighswonger said he looks forward to how playoffs will turn out.

“Right now, we are the number eight or nine team in our CIF division,” he said. “We would like to get to CIF and be able to make a run and who knows what will happen.”

The girls water polo team will play its fourth Freeway League game Tuesday, Jan. 25, in an away affair against the Fullerton High School Tribe (4-0 in the league and 9-7 overall) at 7 p.m.