SDA’s program revival is off to a strong start

Fielding a team for the first time in six years, the San Dieguito Academy girls water polo team is not only playing varsity games again, but the Mustangs are even coming off of an impressive 13-6 victory over El Cajon Valley on Dec. 17.

With just two players on the squad with any previous water polo experience — one of whom hasn’t even seen game action because of CIF transfer rules — that first victory was the latest in a line of memorable milestones so far this season.

First came SDA’s first official girls water polo game in six years when it took on San Marcos Nov. 30. (The school’s first crack at fielding a team was a three-year stint in the late 2000s.)

The next day, freshman Siona Rector, who had played a little bit of club water polo before this year making her a grizzled veteran for the Mustangs in terms of experience, found the net for SDA’s first goal of the season during a Poway Tournament game against Vista.

Mustang coach Scott Kling said it was a cool moment as the whole crowd erupted in cheers for the program’s first goal. Kling has coached the SDA boys program for four seasons, including this fall’s journey to the San Diego Section finals.

But it’s a different beast leading the 18 players that make up the Mustang girls varsity team (another 18 are on JV/novice) as he watches them make big strides on a daily basis. Before getting that first win, Kling remembered the growth his team made during a week in early December.

“In the last game of that tournament (Dec. 3) we played Mission Hills and lost by about 10,” Kling explained. “Then we got together for one practice, and then played Mission Hills again on Dec. 6 and it was a three-goal game.

“Just the experience we got from the tournament and that one practice working on learning the concepts together, we were able to be in that (second game against Mission Hills). That was a great confidence booster.”

Because of the timing of the holidays, the SDA boys team making a deep run to the playoffs and the fact that it took longer to figure out the divisions between JV and varsity girls squads (with none of the girls having any experience), that practice between the two Mission Hills games was among the first the Mustangs had as a complete varsity team.

It all came together on Dec. 17, when Rector had a hat trick, while seniors Linnea Leidy and Chaitanya Hebert and sophomore Bridget Brightfield each tallied two goals in SDA’s first win. Single scores in that victory came from Ruby Feeney, Julia Mendoza, Kara Clancy and Gabriella Gjata, and senior goalie Hana Chen made eight key saves.

On the other end of the pool, Kling said Gracie Williams has been key to the Mustang defense.

“She is a fantastic defender guarding the other team’s two-meter,” Kling continued. “Like almost all of our girls, she came in with zero experience and has picked up the body angles and where she needs to be to play defense, really quickly.”

When SDA takes the pool next, for a Jan. 4 home game against Santa Fe Christian set for 6:15 p.m. at Alga Norte Aquatics Center, it will get a little boost from the season debut of Bridget Brightfield’s older sister Allison. A senior, Allison Brightfield is the only player on the roster with actual high school water polo experience as she transferred from La Costa Canyon (hence the sitting out until January per CIF rules).

“I call Allison my little assistant coach,” Kling said. “(Allison Brightfield and Rector) are always there helping the girls with the little things like where to be and arm angles for shots. They have both been a very positive influence.

“Another thing is that our boys team feels very invested in helping the team, so some of them will come to practice and help our girls, it’s been a really cool thing to see.”

And none of it would have been possible if a group led by a trio of girls and their families hadn’t done the hard work to get the program going. Kling said Lily Kreps, Shannon Wylot and JV player Katie Eliceiri — along with their moms, Joann Kreps, Allison Wylot and Lisa Hannan — were the main thrusts in getting the school to recognize that it should have a team.

Kreps is a junior and Wylot is a sophomore, as the team is made up of six seniors, five juniors, six sophomores and Rector, the lone freshman. In addition to fellow seniors Brightfield, Chen, Gjata, Hebert and Leidy, Natalie Shields provides leadership to the younger Mustangs.

“When we play games, the one thing the other coaches always say is how positive our team is, no matter the score,” Kling said. “The girls are learning the game but also creating a program. And the seniors, even though they have only one year, are really taking their role seriously in putting in all of the hard work and setting a tone for the program.”

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