By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
It was only a year ago that the Menlo-Atherton girls' water polo team captured the Central Coast Section Division I title and Castilleja finished second in the CCS Division II finals. So much has changed since then.
Those same teams met in a showdown for first place in the PAL Bay Division on Wednesday and it was clear that neither team was close to last year's form.
The Bears, however, appear to be headed in the right direction with at least a slight chance to win a third section title in school history following a lopsided 18-5 dunking of the host Gators.
Menlo-Atherton (3-0, 6-8) all but locked up the league title as the Gators (2-1, 7-7) were really the closest challengers in what has become a weak league this season.
The Bears, despite having nine seniors on the team, are still only a shell of last season's 18-9 squad that lost CCS Goalie of the Year Emily Dorst and scoring leader MJ O'Neil plus the consistent Shelby Fero and Katherine Liang.
"It's taken us a little time to adjust," said M-A coach Chris Rubin. "We've played a tough schedule, so we've lost a lot of games. I don't expect to be a top-four (CCS) seed this year. I feel like we're making improvement and, hopefully, we'll be all set for November when the time comes."
For sure, the Bears have taken their lumps. That's the process of breaking in new players, including the all-important goalie position where Dorst dominated during the past four years. Current starter Emily Canny rarely saw any playing time in big matches last season and needs that playing time, as does backup Sierra Sheeper.
Senior Emily Gran, who scored six goals against Castilleja, is just one of many returnees from the CCS championship team. Brittany Krappe is another, along with fellow seniors Danielle Flanagan and Marie-Charlotte Popp. Thus, the nucleus is there for another title run.
Perhaps the only thing missing right now is confidence, Rubin says.
"The girls just need to believe they can do it," he said.
The tough schedule perhaps has worn away some of that confidence, but Rubin said "I always like to play the best, see where we need to adjust. We'll find out if it pays off."
The Bears will be up against it again this weekend at the Davis Fall Classic before taking on perhaps an even tougher field the following weekend in the NorCal Invitational, set for Sacred Heart Prep and M-A.
Castilleja also lost a lot of key players, including both goalies, and is competing without head coach Brenda Villa. She's in Guadalajara, Mexico, with the U.S. National Team that will be playing in the Pan Am Games.
Assistant and former Stanford player Kelsey Holshouser is holding down the fort until Villa returns, but is missing the veteran players that helped the Gators to a 17-10 record last season. Castilleja has only one senior, Camille Zubizaretta, and starts freshman Anna Yu, who scored a pair of goals Wednesday. She's one of four freshmen on the team that clearly has room to grow and improve.
In other girls' water polo Wednesday:
Getting off to its customary fast start, Sacred Heart Prep grabbed a 6-2 halftime lead and rolled to an 11-6 victory over visiting Mitty in a West Catholic Athletic League match. Senior Pippa Temple led the Gators (5-0, 15-2) with three goals while sophomore goalie Kelly Moran had 10 saves. Bridgette Harper, Clare Rudolph and Erin Sheridan all scored twice for SHP.
In the PAL Bay Division, Menlo School grabbed a 4-2 halftime lead after charging out the blocks, but fell to host Sequoia, 8-7. Senior Isabelle Stepien had a strong first half in goal and junior Kaelen Dunn stepped up for the Knights in the second half with six saves. Senior Ilana Crankshaw scored twice for the Knights (0-3, 2-11).
Menlo School ran its league winning streak to 185-0 since 1994 with a 7-0 victory over host Crystal Springs on Wednesday in a West Bay Athletic League (Foothill Division) dual match. The Knights are 7-0 in league this season (12-3 overall) and a lock to win their 18th straight league crown heading into this weekend's Dana Hills National Invitational in Orange County.
Boys' water polo
Menlo School remained atop the PAL Bay Division race with an easy 20-0 romp over host Sequoia on Wednesday. The Knights (3-0, 12-2) got six goals from senior Nick Hale while senior Brad Haaland and junior Micah Rosales added four each. Senior Josh Godfrey contributed two more for Menlo, which plays in the North-South Tournament beginning Friday at Palo Alto High.
Menlo opens up against Loyola at 11:35 a.m., with a victory earning the Knights a shot at top-seeded Mater Dei at 3:55 p.m. Mater Dei is regarded as the top prep team in the nation.
In San Jose, Michael Holloway and Zach Churukian each scored three goals to pace Sacred Heart Prep to a 14-6 victory over host Mitty in a West Catholic Athletic League match on Wednesday. The second-place Gators improved to 4-1 in league (11-8 overall). Will Runkel had 17 saves for the Gators.
Sacred Heart Prep will open the annual North-South Tournament on Friday at home against Laguna Beach, the No. 1 Division III team from the CIF Southern Section. A victory will move the Gators into a 3:55 p.m. match against the winner of Miramonte and Carlsbad.
2011 NORTH-SOUTH TOURNAMENT
At Sacred Heart Prep
Game 1 -- Miramonte vs. Carlsbad, 10:30 a.m.
Game 3 -- Sacred Heart Prep vs. Laguna Beach, 11:35 a.m.
Game 5 -- El Toro vs. Davis, 12:40 p.m.
Game 7 -- Acalanes vs. Los Alamitos, 1:45 p.m.
Game 9 -- Loser 1 vs. loser 3, 2:50 p.m.
Game 11 -- Winner 1 vs. winner 2, 3:55 p.m.
Game 13 -- Loser 5 vs. loser 7, 5 p.m.
Game 15 -- Winner 5 vs. winner 7, 6:05 p.m.
At Palo Alto High
Game 2 -- Mater Dei vs. Soquel, 10:30 a.m.
Game 4 -- Loyola vs. Menlo School, 11:35 a.m.
Game 6 -- St. Francis vs. Villa Park, 12:40 p.m.
Game 8 -- Agoura vs. Palo Alto, 1:45 p.m.
Game 10 -- Loser 2 vs. loser 4, 2:50 p.m.
Game 12 -- Winner 2 vs. winner 4, 3:55 p.m.
Game 14 -- Loser 6 vs. loser 8, 5 p.m.
Game 16 -- Winner 6 vs. winner 8, 6:05 p.m.
At Sacred Heart Prep
Game 17 -- Loser 11 vs. loser 15, 9 a.m.
Game 19 -- Loser 12 vs. loser 16, 10:10 a.m.
Game 21 -- Winner 11 vs. winner 15 (semifinal), 11:20 a.m.
Game 23 -- Winner 12 vs. winner 16 (semifinal), 12:30 p.m.
Game 25 -- Loser 17 vs. loser 19 (7th place), 1:40 p.m.
Game 27 -- Winner 17 vs. winner 19 (5th place), 2:50 p.m.
Game 29 -- Loser 21 vs. loser 23 (3rd place), 4 p.m.
Game 31 -- Winner 21 vs. winner 23 (championship), 5:20 p.m.
At Palo Alto High
Game 18 -- Loser 10 vs. loser 14, 8 a.m.
Game 20 -- Loser 9 vs. loser 13, 9:10 a.m.
Game 22 -- Winner 10 vs. winner 14, 10:20 a.m.
Game 24 -- Winner 9 vs. winner 13, 11:30 a.m.
Game 26 -- Loser 18 vs. loser 20 (15th place), 12:40 p.m.
Game 28 -- Winner 18 vs. winner 20 (13th place), 1:50 a.m.
Game 30 -- Loser 22 vs. loser 24 (11th place), 3 p.m.
Game 32 -- Winner 22 vs. winner 24 (9th place), 4:10 p.m.