There were plenty of reasons to doubt La Salle High School’s chances of winning a CIF-Southern Section title in girls’ water polo in 2020.
For one, a first year aquatics director. For another, a roster featuring only two seniors, no height (only one as tall as 5-foot-7) and a lot of players with minimal water polo experience.
And, finally, a regular season in which the team struggled to stay at or near .500, a season that included a six-match losing streak shortly before playoffs.
On the other hand…
... The aquatics director, Ian Castillo, instilled an attitude that focused more on the quality of play and less on the final score. “Just do your best,” Castillo told his players.
... The team, under the leadership of sophomore captain Savannah Robles, pulled together by emphasizing (a) hard work, (b) constant communication, and (c) prayer before each match.
... The regular season won-lost record failed to reflect the quality of the Lancers’ opposition. A Division 7 school, La Salle’s schedule was filled with matches against higher-ranked teams in Divisions 5 and 6.
Thus, when the D-7 playoffs began, the Lancers – seeded fourth – knew they were capable of doing much better than a 9-12 record would suggest.
Did they ever! La Salle outscored its playoff opponents 58-22, capping its remarkable run with a 16-6 trouncing of No. 2 Rancho Mirage on Feb. 22 to earn its first-ever CIF title in girls’ water polo. That was three days after the Lancers demolished top-seeded El Rancho 14-8 in the semifinals.
“I think,” smiled captain Robles, one of the few Lancers with club water polo experience, “a couple of teams underestimated us.”
As captain, Robles was given the responsibility early in the year of setting an example for her teammates. “We told her, ‘You need to set the tone. As the best player, don’t slack off; your teammates have to learn from you,’” said coach Castillo.
“And Savannah stepped up. She worked hard, and all the girls said, ‘I can do what the best player can do.’ And when that happens, it’s a lot more fun to be playing as a team than relying on one person to do it all.”
Robles, who attends St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Whittier and is a member of La Salle’s swim team, admits it wasn’t the easiest thing to assume leadership.
“I had to watch what I said and how I acted,” she said, “but I learned, and it was amazing to watch us come together.”
The real key, though, was prayer before every game.
“We never prayed to win,” said Robles. “We just offered thanks to God for allowing us to play, and asked God to make sure no one on either team got hurt. And that we would play to the best of our ability.”
“That was huge,” said Castillo. “Once we started praying together, the players all began working together as a team, and for each other. And you know, we could have lost every game, but I just told the girls to play your best, and ask the man up above keep us safe.”
The momentum of the CIF-SS playoff run continued into last week’s first round match of the SoCal Regional Tournament, even though La Salle was beaten 20-16 by Birmingham.
“It was fantastic watching them connect with each other,” Castillo said proudly. “They were making high-quality passes that you’d see at the college level to set up goals, because they know it’s more important that the team scores than which individual scores. And that bodes well for the future.”