They’re back. The San Francisco 49ers, who turned the Super Bowl into their playground five times in the 1980s and ’90s, are favored to win the big game again this Sunday. The Santa Barbara High School Dons, winners of eight CIF girls water polo championships between 1998 and 2006, once again share the top ranking in the homestretch of their season.
The Dons are led by three seniors, who started playing together years before they reached high school. Madeline Trabucco, their goalkeeper, rejects nearly every shot that comes her way; her twin sister, Sophie Trabucco, is a relentless defender; Kelsey O’Brien is the team’s leading scorer.
“We felt we’d be good this year,” said Mark Walsh, the coach who built and sustains the Santa Barbara program. “They put in the time to make it happen.”
The time includes workouts that begin at 5 a.m. “It takes the most commitment of any sport,” goalie Madeline “Mad Dog” Trabucco said. They have to swim constantly, for starters. Then there are the skills of passing, catching, and shooting the ball, as well as taking and giving fouls.
“The most exciting thing this season is that we’ve played well as a team,” said Madeline. “We’re all best friends,” Sophie said, “and that helps us connect in the pool.” O’Brien added, “I’ve grown up with them. I’m sad it’s our senior year.”
They will part ways next year, each of them going to a different college. Madeline is headed to UC Berkeley, Sophie to UCSB, and O’Brien to UCLA. “It will be good for us to grow and develop without each other to lean on,” Madeline said.
UCSB coach Cathy Neushul was elated to get a commitment from Sophie Trabucco. “She is a fierce competitor and one of the premier one-on-one defenders in the game,” Neushul said. “For Sophie to stay local and play for UCSB is just huge for our program.”
The Gaucho coach’s daughter, Kiley Neushul, was instrumental in ending Santa Barbara High’s run of CIF championships. Kiley led Dos Pueblos to four consecutive titles (2008-11), including a 67-game winning streak. She was an All-American as a freshman at Stanford last year.
The Trabuccos and O’Brien were sophomores in the last year of Kiley’s reign of terror. They resolved to bring the glory back to Santa Barbara. They put their trust in Walsh, a steady motivator. “He prepares us for every game really well,” Madeline said. “We work really hard for him.” O’Brien commented, “He’s not a screamer. He’s the mellowest coach at the tournaments.”
The Dons, 16-4, are tied atop the CIF Division 1 rankings with Foothill of Santa Ana. The Dons lost twice to Foothill early in the season, but in this month’s Tournament of Champions, they stopped Foothill in the semifinals, 8-7, and defeated Newport Harbor, 7-5, for their first title in seven years. This weekend, the Dons will play in the Irvine Southern California Championships, a tournament that will influence the CIF playoff seedings.
Dos Pueblos, ranked No. 7, and San Marcos, No. 9, are also having good seasons, as Santa Barbara’s three teams challenge the Orange County powers in the nation’s foremost battleground of prep water polo.
ALL ABOUT THE GIRLS: Olympic swimmer Kaitlin Sandeno says the No. 1 question people ask her is, “Do you know Michael Phelps?” It’s worth getting to know Sandeno, winner of four Olympic medals, including a courageous swim at Athens to earn a silver in the 400-meter individual medley. She will be the guest speaker Monday, February 4, at the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table’s annual Women and Girls in Sports Luncheon at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. Retired from competition, Sandeno is a national spokesperson for Team NEGU (Never, Ever Give Up), a foundation that supports children with cancer. For information on the luncheon, visit sbart.org.
FANTASTIC FINISHES: Speaking of never giving up … with his team trailing San Marcos by two points in the final seconds of overtime last Friday night, Santa Barbara High’s Noah Burke chased down a basketball flung deep into the backcourt. He dribbled to half-court and flung up a shot that creased the net at the buzzer, giving the Dons a 56-55 victory that exhilarated their fans, appalled the Royals’ home crowd, and astonished everybody else. The two teams will play their Channel League rubber match on Tuesday, February 5, at the SBHS gym. … Against a Hawai‘i team that was undefeated in Big West basketball games on its home court, UCSB’s women pulled out a 51-50 victory Saturday on Nicole Nesbit’s layup. The Gauchos return to the Thunderdome for games Thursday night, January 31, against UC Riverside and Saturday afternoon, February 2, against Cal State Fullerton.