IRVINE — Growing up, Kaleigh Gilchrist always was known as the two-sport star.
She was a surfer, and she was a water polo player. She was great with a board and a big wave, or with a No. 15 cap on her dome in the pool.
Gilchrist, the former Newport Harbor High standout, still has a passion for both sports. But right now in her life, water polo reigns supreme.
The decision may not have been easy, but the USC women's water polo team is certainly reaping the benefits.
Gilchrist is a junior co-captain on the top-ranked team in the country. She had two goals as USC pulled away to top No. 7 UC Irvine, 11-3, in a nonconference game Saturday afternoon at the Anteaters' pool.
"I had to commit myself to water polo," Gilchrist said after helping the Trojans improve to 20-0. "I guess that's the reason I came to college, to get a degree and win national championships. I've kind of been putting surfing on the back burner. I've definitely been surfing still almost just as much, but competitively, I'm just going to do a couple of contests and wait until I graduate, then go full bore. Right now, it's all water polo."
Gilchrist was a second-team All-American last year while leading USC in scoring, helping the team advance to the national title game before losing to Stanford. Again this year, Gilchrist is a big threat for the Trojans. She is playing more on the outside than at two meters this year, but she is second on the team with 31 goals. Saturday's two-goal output represented her eighth multi-goal game of the season.
She helped jump start the Trojans early, scoring off a foul on their first possession of the game. And she assisted on USC's second goal, firing a cross pass to junior Hannah Buckling on the left. Buckling, who had a team-high three goals for the Trojans, scored to give USC a 2-0 advantage late in the first quarter.
USC Coach Jovan Vavic, who is trying to lead the program to its fourth national title, said Gilchrist is a really intelligent player.
"She has grown up the last couple of years, and really became a leader of our team," Vavic said. "Her first year, she was not really sure what she wanted to do. You know, she's an outstanding surfer. I think that the first semester was really rough for her. But the last year and a half, she has made tremendous improvements in her game and her overall commitment to water polo. Now, she's clearly our team leader."
Buckling scored again on the counterattack to give the Trojans a 3-0 lead, before UC Irvine (15-8) stormed back. The Anteaters used a goal from center by Hillary Estrada, then six-on-five strikes from Michaela Pierandozzi and McKenna Mitchell, to knot the score at 3-3 with 5:56 left in the half.
But the Trojans responded with goals from senior co-captain Dominique Sardo, Colleen O'Donnell and Eike Daube to grab a 6-3 halftime advantage. They were on their way to earning another win at UC Irvine, where they won the Anteaters' Invitational tournament in late February, defeating then-No. 1 Stanford in the championship match.
"It's always good to come in here," Gilchrist said. "We had a good win against Stanford in this pool, so we were fired up. UCI's a great team. We just came ready to play."
UC Irvine would not score again in the contest. The Anteaters were shut out for the final 21:56. Their leading scorer, junior Hannah Croghan, had no goals, although she led all players with four steals.
"We are challenged on the offensive end of the pool this year," UCI Coach Dan Klatt said. "We have a more team game, and we need to work hard to score goals. We got a lot of good shots off, but we struggled to get them in the cage. They shot-block very well, and they're very disciplined in their defense. There's a reason why they're No. 1, because they play good water polo.
"We get to that point of 3-3, but we're not able to get another one in the cage. That makes it really challenging to keep fighting after that. You just get tired, and you don't get energized by scoring a goal, so it just kind of compounds. Obviously, they have a lot of weapons, and eventually they're going to break you down. It makes it a lot easier when you can score a goal and sub, get fresh defenders in there, and we just weren't able to do that."
Vavic has a very deep team; he said he used 15 players in Saturday's game. Two others, seniors Nicolina McCall (Newport Harbor) and Chelsea Silvers (Mater Dei), were also Newport Beach natives. Silvers provided the Trojans' eighth goal early in the fourth quarter.
"We usually wear teams down," said Vavic, who greeted USC-bound Corona del Mar High seniors Stephania and Ioanna Haralabidis after the game.
USC won despite being going just one for nine in power-play situations. UC Irvine converted two of eight with the extra player.
A day after her 22nd birthday, Trojans junior goalie Flora Bolonyai made seven saves in anchoring the visitors' defense. Sophomore Jillian Yocum made nine saves for UCI.
Gilchrist and the Trojans finish off their Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular-season schedule with two tough games, at home against No. 2 Stanford on April 13 and at No. 4 UCLA on April 19. The defending national champion Cardinal boast CdM products Kate Baldoni (goalie) and Victoria Kennedy on their roster, as well as Newport Harbor alumna Catherine Carpenter. UCLA has four local products on its roster in Alex Musselman (goalie), Victoria Kent and Leslee Kaczmarek of CdM and Maddy McLaren of Newport Harbor.
UC Irvine, meanwhile, resumes Big West Conference play by hosting Cal State Northridge at noon Sunday. There are three more conference games left before the Big West Tournament, which the Anteaters are hosting for the first time on April 26-28.
The Anteaters have won the previous four Big West Tournament titles. This year, they're in a tight race in conference. They are 3-1 in the Big West, behind first-place Hawaii (5-1).
All eight teams in the conference are ranked in the top 20 in the country.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we played three one-goal games [in the tournament]," Klatt said. "It's so close ... it's going to be a fun tournament. I think everybody's going to be challenged with very intense, close games."