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Girls’ Water Polo Preview: La Cañada aims to defend Rio Hondo League title

Photo Gallery: La Cañada High girls’ water polo throttles South Pasadena High
Tess Fundter is a key returner this season for the La Cañada High girls’ water polo team.
(File Photo)

A senior-heavy class helped clinch a fourth consecutive Rio Hondo League title for the La Cañada High girls’ water polo team during the 2018-19 season

For second-year coach Robert Eccheverria, the first step in defending the league championship is filling those roles left open from the graduating group with a mixture of seasoned veterans and skilled underclassmen.

For Flintridge Prep, it looks to continue its success from last season in which the Rebels advanced to a first-ever CIF Southern Section championship match.

Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy will look to get back to the playoffs after falling just short last season out of the tough Mission League.

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Here is a closer look at the teams.

LA CAÑADA

“We still have a lot of returners that know what it takes to win the league,” Eccheverria said. “That’s an advantage for us, but it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to learn to play with one another and get better as a team.

“If we do that, we’ll have a chance to win league. I like where we are as a team. I think we’ll have a shot, but we have to make sure we take care of business on both ends, offense and defense.”

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The Spartans finished 21-8 and were unbeaten (8-0) in league. The squad advance to the CIF Southern Section Division II quarterfinals, where La Cañada fell to eventual champion Santa Margarita, 8-6.

“[Playoffs will] be tough, especially with a mixed roster because of some veterans and some youth,” Eccheverria said. “Right now, we need to understand our role as a team. I think being competitive in the league is our primary goal. Everything after that, our goal is to train and to get better for a chance to win when we start competing with our division opponents.”

A key vacancy is in the cage left by goalkeeper Carolyne Stern, a two-time All-CIF Division II first-team selection and two-time all-league first-team selection who had 438 saves on her way to signing with USC.

To fill that position is Jessica Chilton, a junior who rotated and played behind Stern last season.

“She had a dual role last year and she has a lot of experience,” said Eccheverria of Chilton. “She played club, so that helps. She’s going to step into a role that she’s comfortable with, and we feel comfortable that she’s going to do a great job in defending the goal for us.”

The lone senior on the squad will be Tess Fundter, who will serve as captain of the team alongside junior Shelby Hovanesian.

Joining the captains in the returning core will be seniors Beatriz Untalan and Brianna Akopian and junior Meadow Solares, who will transition into a starting player.

A new addition will be freshman Shereen Emadi, a club player from Rose Bowl Aquatics.

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“This year is kind of like last year: every girl has to play every position and will have to be ready for it,” Eccheveirra said. “Shereen will kind of have a role at center, but as the game goes on, she will rotate into a different position. She’s going to have an impact for us right away.”

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.

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.”

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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.”

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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