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Girls’ Water Polo Preview: Flintridge Prep grinds for more playoff success

Photo Gallery: Flintridge Prep vs. Mayfield in Prep League girls’ water polo
Natalie Kaplanyan is a key returner this season for the Flintridge Prep girls’ water polo team.
(File Photo)

Last season’s girls’ water polo success for the CIF Southern Section Division VII finalist Flintridge Prep will hope to be replicated with an ample amount of returners for the Rebels.

New coaches have taken over for a trio of area teams that battle in the Pacific League, with Crescenta Valley aiming to continue its dominance under former Sherman Oaks Notre Dame assistant coach Amber Dien.

For Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, the Tologs look to break through to the playoffs while enduring a tough Mission League route.

Here’s a closer look at the teams.

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FLINTRIDGE PREP

Though the program’s quest for a first division title ended in a one-goal loss, the Rebels now have the map to replicate that playoff run.

“We’ve got to stay healthy, number one,” Flintridge Prep coach Andrew Phillips said. “That’s a big one. We’ve got to stay focused [over the winter break]. We’ve got to have consistency in practices and we have to have the drive in the second half of the season. You can’t be sick of the sport, simply put.”

The Rebels finished tied in second in the Prep League with an overall 8-2 record and appeared in the Division VII championship match after wins against Nogales, Heritage, Fontana and Carpinteria. Flintridge Prep, the third seed, fell in the championship match to No. 1 Katella, 5-4.

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Now with the bump up to Division VI, the Rebels’ journey to success is simple: stay healthy.

The Rebels will be led by junior Natalie Kaplanyan, who returns after having scored 30 goals last season.

“Natalie is definitely our score leader, so we need to keep her head in the game,” Phillips said. “But we also want to facilitate everyone else because that’s her job: she draws the openings and the drops, so everyone needs to be able to finish. For the most part, we have girls that can finish.”

Alongside her will be a veteran core in starters senior Makenna Walklett and junior Isabel Simons. Also in the mix will be senior Paige Nixon, who can provide big-time clutch plays for the Rebels, along with senior left-hander Gracie McKiernan.

A rising key player will be sophomore Elise Desjarlais, who led the junior varsity program last season and had brief call-ups to the varsity level.

“She’s just someone who is very coachable and passionate about everything she does,” Phillips said. “She likes being physical, she likes being competitive, she likes being the best in the pool at all times. She has definitely filled in for a couple of seniors that left last season.”

CRESCENTA VALLEY

The Falcons captured their 10th Pacific League title last season, but fell in the wild-card round of the Division III playoffs to Palos Verdes, 18-6.

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Crescenta Valley not only saw its league winning streak of 79 matches come to an end in its 12-10 loss to Arcadia in the Pacific League Tournament final, but saw coach Ricky Mulcahey step down after five years at the helm to focus on his family.

Cue new water polo coach Amber Dien.

Dien helped lead Sherman Oaks Notre Dame to the Division III title in 2018 as a Knights’ assistant and has the feel for continued success with the Falcons under her first stint as head coach.

In her playing career, Dien was a starting goalkeeper at Verdugo Hills High and was part of the women’s team at L.A. Valley College.

“Since then, I’ve always strived to try and do that again with any program I work with,” said Dien as the Falcons drop to Division IV. “I think we’ve got a really good group of girls who are really ready to compete this year. There is a good chance of us trying to accomplish some great things this season.”

Returning to the squad is first-team all-league senior pair Lexie Kawachi and Hanna Ziccardi. Both will serve as team captains.

Also in the lineup will be another first-team all-league honoree in returning junior Katie Ward, and all-league honorable mention sophomore Malia Abrahamian will provide aide to the team as well.

Falcons sophomore Holly Weston is also a new addition to the team who could make an impact for a squad seeking its 11th consecutive league title.

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“We just have to take it one game at a time,” said Dien of defending the league crown. “I think there’s a lot of raw talent on my team and we just have to see how we can put it to work. It really comes down on how the girls work together in those tough-game situations.”

GLENDALE

As Glendale undergoes construction on its new on-campus pool, the Nitros are looking to build on last season’s fourth-place finish in the Pacific League, which earned them an at-large berth into the Division V playoffs. Glendale fell to Montebello, 14-3, in a first-round match.

With new coach Garrett Fritz, a member of the boys’ water polo team that captured the Division V title in 2013, there is talent that can propel the Nitros.

A 2015 graduate, Fritz returns to help pilot the Nitros and will coach his sister, senior Jamie Fritz.

“I’m quite hopeful for our season,” Fritz said. “We have a solid starting crew. It’s also pretty early in the season, so I haven’t seen us play much, but I’m excited for what we have.”

Jamie Fritz returns after earning first-team all-league honors last season. She is joined by Berenice Dornila as the only seniors on the team. But the Nitros will also have experience in juniors Marissa Briones and Nicole Avedisian.

In the cage will be junior goalkeeper Kristina Ter-Matevosyan and joining the team from junior varsity are juniors Demy Brati and Aleek Tekehyan, who Fritz says will have an immediate impact.

“She showed a lot of maturity with her calm decision-making [in a recent nonleague game against],” Fritz said. “She made a number great assists and I can’t really think of many bad passes that she made at all. She’s very well-tempered and always has a great attitude, which is fantastic.”

HOOVER

Hoover welcomes new coach Laura Lopez to the program. Lopez brings experience as an assistant coach for the UC Santa Barbara women’s team and was a graduate assistant at Whittier College.

Though Lopez will be the Tornadoes third coach in as many years, she hopes to bring not just stability to the program, but a different mindset in the pool.

“We want to start building a competitive culture,” said Lopez, who takes over a Tornadoes program that was winless in league last season. “We all practice together — junior varsity and varsity. We do have a small team, but I think it’s just starting to build to that team culture. The unity and playing for each other idea.”

“I try to make it a positive thing. It’s a new year, it’s a fresh start and we can start on a new page.”

Lopez will have five seniors returning, with Michele Sherdov, McKenna Tribble and Tate Aghasryan leading Hoover as team captains.

Also in the mix with senior Annie Sarkisian and senior goalkeeper Lusin Yengiboryan will be sophomore Mary Koulyan and freshman Elle Baker.

“I just want them to go out there and play best as possible, whatever the outcome is,” Lopez said. “Obviously, our goal is to win some games and be successful. But I just want them to come out better athletes than when I first saw them in September.”

FLINTRIDGE SACRED HEART ACADEMY

The Tologs look to clinch a Division VI playoff spot in a tough Mission League and will turn to a core of returners and talented young contingent to do so.

“We had some first-year seniors last season on our team,” Flintridge Sacred Heart coach Carlos Ponce said. “We had a great group, and now that they’ve graduated, we’re starting a refresh button. I’m not a big believer in rebuilding. I’m a big believer in refreshing them. That’s what I’m looking forward to this year.

“We have some talent. We’re very young. We have two seniors and the rest are sophomores, so it’s a very young program. We’re just looking forward with what we can build on.”

Flintridge Sacred Heart comes off a season in which it finished 10-14 and 2-4 for fifth in league, one game behind fourth-place Alemany for the final playoff berth.

In the pool to help lead the Tologs is senior Bree Layseca and senior Franny Christensen.

“They’re both coming back to help us,” Ponce said. “Bree is a three-year varsity player and she’s our utility player, so she’ll post up for us. She’s like an Energizer bunny. She’ll just keep going. That’s what we need.

“With Franny, she’s very strong and a very good leader. They both are.Those leadership roles will help the team.”

Starting junior Abby Kim provides a left-hander for the Tologs, and protecting the cage will be junior goalkeeper Ellie Lund.

“A lot of teams have great players, but to have someone [like Lund] behind you in the cage, you know things are going to be stopped,” Ponce said. “You know good decisions are going to be made.”

A new addition to the team will be sophomore driver Brooke Miller, who could provide an impact during the Tologs league run.

“The sky is the limit for her,” Ponce said. “She has a high ceiling and she’s just about to scratch it. I think she’s going to be someone that we need to pay attention to throughout the year. I think this is going to be a great start for her to really come into the fold.”


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