<b>POOLSIDE PLANS:</b> “I want us to have a championship mind-set and be able to win the Big West Conference,” said UCSB head coach Serela Kay, who feels optimistic about the team’s future. “We have a lot of time to improve. We’re going to be a different team in 12 weeks.” Kay (center) squats, surrounded by her water polo players.
Paul Wellman

In the spirit of Ernie Banks, “Let’s play two” was the order of the day throughout the UCSB Winter Invitational last weekend. The college women’s water polo tournament featured 15 teams, including three of the biggest fish in the NCAA Division I pond — No. 2–ranked UCLA, No. 4 Cal, and No. 5 Arizona State — some lower-ranked teams like No. 14 UCSB, and several small fry.

The host Gaucho women played a pair of games at each level, resulting in two lopsided victories (16-1 over Azusa Pacific and 20-2 over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps); two tough losses (Michigan winning 10-8 and Loyola Marymount pulling out a 10-9 win in four overtimes); a thumping (20-8 at the hands of UCLA); and a chance at an upset (a 12-7 loss to Arizona State after leading 7-6 early in the final quarter).

The Arizona State game, the last of the tournament, affirmed Serela Kay’s optimism as she begins her first season as UCSB’s head coach. Two hours earlier, the Gauchos had pulled themselves out of the pool after their exhausting battle against Loyola Marymount. “Our recovery time was short,” Kay said. “I was impressed with our mentality. I want us to have a championship mindset and be able to win the Big West Conference. We have a lot of time to improve. We’re going to be a different team in 12 weeks.”

Even against UCLA, which is loaded up for a championship run, the Gauchos were not intimidated. Their game was a bit of a homecoming celebration. Three starting players for the Bruins came out of area high schools—goalkeeper Sami Hill and attacker Kodi Hill (sisters from Dos Pueblos), and attacker Kelsey O’Brien (Santa Barbara). UCSB players include a pair of former Santa Barbara Dons, Sophie Trabucco and Elizabeth Hendrix, and Jade Wentz Fitzgerald from San Marcos. All of these women also played for the Santa Barbara Water Polo Club, a force in the Junior Olympics.

O’Brien and Trabucco, both sophomores, were four-year teammates at S.B. High. “I tried to pretend I’m not her best friend,” Trabucco said after their Saturday-morning showdown. “It was hard. Sometimes I have to smile when I see her.” O’Brien does have an abidingly happy face. Beneath it, though, she is a competitor. “UCSB came out really hard, and we had to match their intensity,” O’Brien said. There was little vocal repartee during the match, but she confessed to “a little kick here and there.”

Trabucco, one of the tallest Gauchos at 5’11”, is their primary defender. “It’s a selfless job,” Kay said. “She has to match up with the biggest, strongest girl on the other team.”

Hendrix, a year behind O’Brien and Trabucco, showed promise in her collegiate debut. “Betsy is a tough and aggressive player,” Trabucco said. Kay described the freshman as “a bull in a china cabinet. She’s got a great attitude.” Another first-year Gaucho, Camila Schafer of Miami, Florida, was the team’s leading scorer in the tournament.

Wentz Fitzgerald, a senior, adds some firepower to UCSB’s attack. During her San Marcos days, she had many humbling experiences against the formidable Dos Pueblos teams, anchored by Sami Hill. “She’s a very challenging goalie to score on,” Wentz Fitzgerald said. “She makes us a better team.”

Sami Hill was a goalkeeper for the U.S. national team last summer. She recorded 16 saves in the FINA World Cup championship match in Russia, a 10-6 victory over Australia. The Rio de Janeiro Olympics are on her horizon, but now she is focused on her senior year at UCLA. “It’s a little sad this is my last season,” she said. “College is fun.” UCSB spoiled her fun somewhat by scoring eight goals against her. Hill gave up only six more goals in three other matches.

Hill and the Bruins are chasing the NCAA crown, one title that has eluded her. UCLA finished runner-up last year to Stanford, which has a pair of former Dos Pueblos standouts, Kiley and Jamie Neushul. Kiley also is a national team performer. “We have a good shot [at taking down top-ranked Stanford],” said Kodi Hill, a junior who’s looking sharp for the Bruins.

Cal is another team with a dose of Santa Barbara talent — goalkeeper Madeline Trabucco, Sophie’s twin sister, and senior Tiera Schroeder, another Dos Pueblos graduate. The Golden Bears, UCLA, and Arizona State went a combined 14-0 in the Winter Invitational.

Kay, UCSB’s third coach in three years, said she’s committed to making the Gauchos competitive at the highest level. It’s her first head coaching job, after she spent 11 years in assistant positions at Princeton, Cal, her native Maryland, and Hawai‘i.

The Gauchos said Kay is working them harder than her predecessors did. Water polo is a sport of nonstop exertion. “We were trying every minute of the game, and we never got tired,” Hendrix said. The regimen includes two extra practices a week at 6 a.m. Kay looks at the bright side: “We get to watch the sun rise in beautiful Santa Barbara.”

TITLE IX DINING: Scores of female athletes from the city’s colleges and high schools will gather at Earl Warren Showgrounds on Monday, February 2, to celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day at an annual luncheon sponsored by the S.B. Athletic Round Table. The guest speaker will be Alissa Johnson, one of the outspoken U.S. women’s ski jumpers who prodded the International Olympic Committee to add their sport to the Winter Games. For information and luncheon reservations, visit sbart.org.

SUPER BOWL XLIX: The media do not need XLAX; they need something to stem the flow of verbal waste about the “Deflate-gate” controversy. NFL field judge Gary Cavaletto of Santa Barbara worked the AFC championship game in New England and often relayed the footballs between plays. “You couldn’t tell the difference” between the deflated balls and those that were corrected in the second half, he said. But he expects the Patriots to be sanctioned sometime after Sunday’s Super Bowl.


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