Courtesy of Niki Reynolds
Recent Burlingame graduate Niki Reynolds will be competing in her final tournament with the Stanford Girls Water Polo Club this week, as the 18-and-under team competes in the National Junior Olympics.
The Stanford Girls Water Polo Club is gearing up for the National Junior Olympics — spanning 34 pools around the Peninsula — beginning with Thursday’s opener at Serra’s Aquatics Center at noon.
The Stanford Club 18-and-under A-team includes several San Mateo County standouts, including recent graduates from Burlingame, Carlmont, Sacred Heart Prep and St. Francis. The tourney, which concludes with Sunday’s championship round, will serve as the last go-around for many of the swimmers, some of whom have been on roster with Stanford Club since swimming at the 12-and-under level.
Stanford Club 18A head coach Kyle Utsumi has helmed this particular group of girls for four years, including two previous seasons at the 16-and-under level. Having coached at the club since 1994, Utsumi previously served as head coach of the girls’ water polo team at Menlo School from 1997 to 2005, during which time the Knights won league championships in each of his nine seasons and also captured three Central Coast Section titles. He currently serves as an assistant coach for Stanford women’s water polo.
“We feel like we’re able to compete with all the best teams in the country,” Utsumi said of the 18A club squad. “The way [the Club Junior Olympics] are set up, you’ll meet strong teams very early. And we’re looking to give every team a great game and improve throughout the tournament so as to raise our level as the stakes get higher.”
The team is fresh off of competing in a midseason tune-up at the U.S. Club Championships at Capistrano Valley High School in Orange County held July 11-13. Stanford Club 18A had one of its best showings in team history, taking third place after posting a 4-2 record through the three-day event, culminating in a 9-7 loss to 680 Water Polo in the consolation championship game.
“This performance was our best in recent history,” Utsumi said. “It was really important for our athletes to reach the final four and compete, and we had wins over several of the perennially strong clubs from Southern California. … To break through and have a series of wins was really important for our team.”
Stanford Club featured some dramatics against a contingent of Southern California teams with a pair of comebacks victories while sweeping through three games of pool play. The team opened with a 10-6 win over Rose Bowl Water Polo Club, and closed Day 1 play with a tight 6-4 victory over Huntington Beach Water Polo Club.
On Day 2, Stanford Club won 10-9 over Xtreme Water Polo in dramatic fashion. Entering the final minute tied at 9-9, Stanford Club executed a scripted play to recent Sacred Heart Prep graduate Morgan McCracken. McCracken drew a foul and hammered home the game-winning goal with a cross-cage penalty shot.
The win propelled Stanford Club into the playoff round, in which the team downed Saddleback-El Toro Water Polo 8-5. In the semifinals, however, Stanford Club fell short of an epic comeback with a 9-8 loss to SoCal Water Polo. Trailing 9-3 at the start of the fourth quarter, Stanford Club resorted to a hard press and rallied for five unanswered goals, paced by several goals from Caroline Anderson, but fell just shy of a berth in the championship game.
“We needed about one more minute and I believe we could have taken the lead,” Stanford Club defender Niki Reynolds said. “But it was a great game.”
Reynolds — a recent Burlingame grad who is set to play at UCLA in the fall — came up with a clutch defensive save to keep SoCal off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter. In attempting to discourage a shot late in the quarter, Reynolds produced a block to send the crowd into a frenzy.
One of the new editions to the Stanford Club 18A squad this season, Reynolds joined the club last season after transitioning from the Burlingame Aquatics Club. The left-hander proved to be one of stars of the Stanford Club 18-and-under B-team last summer in a bronze-medal performance at the Club Junior Olympics.
“That was a big deal,” Utsumi said. “As her first year on the club, she played a big role on that team with her speed, and her awareness, and her ability to play great defense. I consider that really important for her, because she played at a high level and reached games that were very meaningful. … She brought that experience right into the A-group this year.”
A club swimmer since the age of 6, Reynolds discovered water polo her freshman year at Burlingame; and she did so quite reluctantly. It was her father, Marc, who recommended she go out for the team. So, Reynolds landed on the Lady Panthers’ frosh-soph squad and took an immediate liking to the rigorous sport.
“I ended up loving it,” Reynolds said. “I love swimming, but swimming got a little boring for me, just going back and forth. I’ve always been an aggressive, competitive person. So, I could wrestle people in the water while swimming. I was like, ‘I love this.’”
The following season, Reynolds moved up to the varsity squad. One of three sophomores on the team, she was the only starting underclassman for the perennial CCS contender. During her sophomore campaign, Reynolds played with Burlingame senior standout Charlotte Pratt, and the friendship garnered some lasting results.
With Pratt going to UCLA, the two are set to once again play as teammates with the Bruins in the fall. And it was Pratt who hosted Reynolds’ official trip to the UCLA campus, before Reynolds officially committed last summer.
Other San Mateo County girls currently playing for Stanford Club 18A are 2013 CCS Division II Player of the Year Caitlin Stuewe (SHP grad committed to USC), San Carlos natives Anna Edgington and Natalie Williams (St. Francis), Redwood City’s Sami Strutner (St. Francis grad committed to Harvard), Anna Heilman (Menlo-Atherton grad committed to Brown), and Kristin Denney (Carlmont).