Water polo teams brace for postseason

An Ashland High water polo season that began with issues of depth and inexperience on the boys' team and doubts of the mere existence of a team on the girls' side continues its surprising turn at this weekend's District Championships.

Both Grizzly teams are set take their 6-4 records to Eugene and are seeded third in the four-team tournaments. Action begins Friday, when both Ashland teams open against second-seeded Cottage Grove.

At stake will be the playoff hopes of all teams involved. Only the top two teams coming out of each tournament will move on to the state tournament in Corvallis next weekend.

The Ashland girls, which began the fall in a scramble to find enough players to make up a team, boast little water polo experience, relying heavily on athletes more familiar with sports like basketball and softball.

Head coach of both Grizzly squads, Christi Gilmore, is impressed that the girls' athletic ability and will to succeed has so far trumped their lack of experience.

"It's unbelievable," Gilmore said. "It's like the Bad News Bears. We sort of made this team out of thin air. We're going in third, but I think we'll come out first or second for sure in districts."

The Grizzlies are led offensively by sophomore Allison Gida, who doubles as a second-team all-Southern Sky Conference basketball player and defensively by Carley Santee, a softball catcher who is putting some of those same skills to use as a goal keeper. Santee managed 24 saves in Ashland's last clash with Cottage Grove. Gilmore is excited about her goalie's talent.

"Carley Santee is phenomenal," she said. "Just a rocket in the cage blocking shots. (She's) pretty amazing. She is a (softball) catcher so she is rocking it."

The girls have come a long way from where they started the season. In the Grizzlies' first district tournament, they lost to every school represented in this weekend's districts: South Eugene, Cottage Grove and North Eugene. In their next district tournament, they turned things around, beating everyone but top-seeded South Eugene. Gilmore is confident that if her team can get past Cottage Grove, they will give the lone conference squad they are yet to topple (South Eugene) a tough match.

"I believe that we will go in strong to Cottage Grove and conquer them again," Gilmore said. "We beat them two weeks ago. If we can beat Cottage Grove, South Eugene is going to be a tough team. But if we work together with what we've practiced, I think that we'll give them a run for their money if not beat them."

The boys' team is a different story. A young, rebuilding squad finds itself with an opportunity to match its success of the 2006 season with a win over Cottage Grove on Friday.

Gilmore believes that if the boys can increase their intensity level, they can continue to overcome issues of team depth and inexperience and move on to the state tournament.

"I think (we can win) if we get our head into that game and bring the intensity level up," she said. "They have an inexperienced goalie as we do. So if we can get our shots in there, I think it will be more of a match than it has been in the past. We just have to get those shots in that cage."

As for top-seeded South Eugene, which boasts 13 seniors, Gilmore and company know it will take a near miracle in order for the Grizzlies to pull off the upset.

"(To beat South Eugene) there would have to be a small bus accident, which I would never wish on anybody," she said. "South Eugene is dominant for sure. There's no getting around that."

The boys are led by senior captain Andrew Cataldo and sophomore sprinter Lucas Opgenorth. The squad has been pleasantly surprised by the emergence of left-handers Rafferty Swink and Jake Gavin along with goalie Tucker Bacon who has made a transition from cross country.

Gilmore is pleased with the strides Bacon has made, working through his inexperience. "He is doing a great job for what we are working with," Gilmore said. "He's never been in a ball-handling sport. He's sort of stepped up to the plate and is doing a great job with the inexperience he has."

Team unity has gotten the Grizz to where they are. Gilmore has found that this bond can at times be as much a negative as it is a positive.

"We need to work on positive reinforcement," she said. "They're so close, it's almost like having siblings in the pool where you have to watch the fact that they can get away with a lot more than if (they) weren't so close with somebody."

The future looks bright for the boys, as they expect to continue their upswing while conference powerhouse South Eugene will likely be in rebuilding mode next season.

"It's the strength, the actual getting to be older and stronger is what is a few of our drawbacks," Gilmore said. "That only comes with time. In the next two years these kids will be strong and their heads will be focused and I think they'll do a lot better. We're rebuilding. We can only do so much."

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