Five months after achieving their ultimate goal in high school water polo, Natasha Schulman, Sarah Zuziak and Lexie Ross were again dreaming big last weekend.
But again, just months after winning the CIF Southern Section Division II title with Laguna Beach High, they worked hard and made those dreams a reality.
This time it was a gold metal, which Schulman, Zuziak and Ross won Sunday at the S&R; Sport National Junior Olympics. Their SET 18-and-under team captured the Platinum Division title by beating Diablo, 7-5, in the title game at Stanford University.
“It was breathtaking," said Schulman, the UCLA-bound defender who captured tournament MVP honors along with teammate Lauren Colton. “My team and I, we worked so hard all summer. This has been our goal since June. All the hard work, the late practices and the sprints, they paid off with the title."
The El Toro-based SET team, which finished third in 16s two years ago and tied for fifth in 18s last year, was the top-seeded team in this year’s tournament. The girls cruised early, but then suffered a 5-4 loss to Diablo. That required SET, coached by two-time Olympian Brad Schumacher, to play three games Saturday to Diablo’s one, taking the “back door" back to the championship game.
Zuziak, a goalie who’s headed to UC Santa Barbara, said that did nothing but strengthen the team’s determination.
“We lost, yeah, but we weren’t going to let it get to us," she said. “It was a lot of hard work [to get back] but it was a good feeling, to get to play more games together."
SET won all three of the Saturday games to get to the semifinals, then defeated SOCAL Black, 5-3, to earn a rematch with the rivals from the Bay Area.
Once there, SET scored three early goals and led the entire game, and the gold medal was earned.
“I guess losing to Diablo early made us more hungry," Schulman said. “We were just waiting for another chance."
Like Laguna Beach’s high school team, SET had come close before, making this year’s victories even more sweet.
“Both teams have always been the ‘almost’ team," Schulman said. “It was kind of like tying up loose ends [to win]. It’s one of the greatest feelings ever. That’s why you get in a team sport and work so hard."
Ross, a utility player who is the only incoming senior in the Laguna Beach program, said the victory was a long time coming.
The SET girls won even while missing key players like Stanford-bound center Annika Dries, another former Breaker who is overseas with the U.S. women’s junior national team.
“It was really a great feeling, seeing it go our way for once," Ross said. “We knew we were the best before, we just couldn’t push ourselves to the championship. It feels pretty awesome, I’m not going to lie."
Other Laguna Beach High players also fared well at JOs. Yoshi Andersen and Jessie Holechek were part of the Huntington Beach Water Polo Club team that took bronze in the 16-and-under Platinum Division. And Jessica Shusko and Melena Masson were on the SET 16-and-under team, which placed fifth in the Platinum Division.
Laguna’s Spencer Dodson was another gold-medal winner. The attacker, who will be a junior for the Breakers this fall, won with SET in the 16-and-under boys’ Platinum Division category.
“Going into the tournament, we had big aspirations for a win," Dodson said. “We just put in so much hard work and it paid off in the end."
Dodson’s squad had to defeat the Stanford Red team twice in the same tournament, not an easy task, but did it for the second time in the title game, 7-5, on July 28.
“It was really rewarding," he said. “I was so amped."