Two years ago, the girls’ water polo team exited the Woollett Aquatic Center empty-handed after losing the CIF-SS Division III Championship 6-5 to Woodrow Wilson High School. The team was forced to watch as Wilson’s coaching staff and players jumped in the pool and celebrated the win, propelled by a go-ahead goal with less than a minute left in the game.
On Feb. 22, in the CIF Championship, attacker Juliette O’Brien ’21 and the rest of the Wolverines would not let history repeat itself. With 1:18 to go in the game, O’Brien scored the go-ahead goal on a cross-pass from fellow attacker Alex Button ’21 to give the Wolverines a 13-12 lead . Moments later, it was first-year head coach Matt Kubeck and his staff who were leaping into the Woollett Aquatic Center pool to celebrate their CIF-SS Division II win .
“We just really wanted it,” O’Brien said. “We lost the last time, but [Button] made a great pass and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
The girls’ team defeated San Clemente High School 13-12 and won its first CIF-SS Division II Championship, while the boys’ team, winners of the CIF-SS Division I Championship, watched in support. The title is the program’s third Southern Section Championship overall and its highest-level championship to date. The program’s first two came in 2011 and 2012 when it won consecutive Division IV titles. Head of Athletics Terry Barnum commended the team on its historic victory.
“Coach Kubeck and his staff did a great job of leading the team, giving them confidence, and getting them ready to play every day,” Barnum said.
Entering the playoffs, the common fan would not have expected the Wolverines to make the run that they did, with the Wolverines ranked third to last in the final CIF-SS Division II regular season standings . The team finished the regular season with an overall record of 14-14 and a non-league record of 8-14. Ultimately, it was a season marked with a plethora of close losses and heartbreaking finishes, nine of its losses coming by two goals or less. The team finished the regular season losing three of its last four games by a combined margin of six goals.
Captain and defender Abby Wiesenthal ’20 said that she felt like the team could not stop losing close games but knew that they would get another shot at winning.
“It really seemed like we were losing every game,” Wiesenthal said. “I remember always saying after a loss, ‘We’ll get them when it counts,’ and we did just that.”
In the first round of the playoffs, the squad defeated Woodrow Wilson 10-6 at the Copses Family Pool after losing to the Mighty Mules in the championship game two years ago . In the next round, though, the Wolverines were matched up with the tournament’s number one seed and a team that had already beaten them twice during the regular season: Oaks Christian School.
“Them being seeded so much higher than us relieved a lot of the pressure in a way, because according to the numbers, we weren’t supposed to win,” Wiesenthal said.
While they may have been considered an underdog , the Wolverines did not shy away from the challenge, defeating the tournament favorite 9-8. The team advanced to the semifinals where it found itself matched up against fifth-ranked Mira Costa High School. The two teams had played earlier in the season, with Mira Costa coming out on top by a score of 10-9. In the rematch, the Wolverines used a balanced attack to defeat the Mustangs 10-8, with goals coming from six different players.
O’Brien said that, after the win against Mira Costa, the team members felt driven and ready for the championship game.
“We really didn’t want to lose because we don’t want this to be our last game together,” O’Brien said. “We also really just wanted to get back especially after losing in 2018. We want to bring to the heat and just win the title.”
O’Brien brought the heat in the championship game, as she finished with three goals and was named the Los Angeles Daily News Girls Athlete of the Week for her performance. Captain and attacker Namlhun Jachung ’20 led the team with five goals.
This season marked only the second time that the team has been in the Open Division, and with the abrupt departure of former Program Head Emily Greenwood at the beginning of the year, the team knew that it would be an uphill battle. O’Brien said that while the girls have dominated the Mission League over the last few years with overall league records of 14-0 in the last two seasons, success in arguably the nation’s most competitive girls’ water polo division would most definitely be a challenge. Kubeck stepped into his position two months before the season began and inherited a team with only three seniors, a freshman goalie and only a year of experience in the Open Division.
Players said that, while Greenwood had stressed speed training and overall fitness, Kubeck focused more on shooting and the technical attributes of the game. Because of this, players not only felt like they were faster than their opponents but also felt more skilled than them, center Adeline Jackson ’21 said.
“In our CIF games, girls made shots that I felt like we wouldn’t make before, and [the shooting practice] really showed in the games,” Jackson said.
Even though they felt more athletic and better trained than their opponents, the results just were not coming for the Wolverines during the regular season. The season was characterized by close losses and an inability to finish matches, but ultimately, the team flipped the script when it mattered most, Jackson said. The Wolverines used the earlier losses as learning experiences and they stayed ready for when they would face earlier opponents again. The team spent countless hours studying film of their earlier losses in the season and became very familiar with their opponents’ tendencies and strengths, Jackson said.
“Matt does a really good job of prepping for our opponents,” Jackson said. “We scout them, we have videos of them, we know the player’s tendencies are and what plays they have. We feel that we prep more than our opponents and that’s what separated us in the playoffs.”
In 2018, the Wolverines left the Woollett Aquatic Center empty-handed. Just two years later, the Wolverines leave as the highest-achieving girls’ water polo team in school history.