Aragon athletic director Steve Sell said during the Dons’ girls’ water polo Central Coast Section Division II first-round match against No. 2 seed Sobrato, Michael Flynn — Aragon girls’ soccer coach and father of water polo goaltender Hannah Flynn — was walking past the Sobrato bench. Written on the coach’s white board was a large number “12.”
That would be the number worn by Aragon’s Maria Sell, a four-year varsity player who was the Dons’ go-to player this season. There was a real simple formula to stopping the Dons this season: stop Sell, win the match.
Easier said than done. Sell scored six goals to lead the seventh-seeded Dons to a 10-9 upset of the Bulldogs before falling to No. 3 Saratoga 5-4 in the semifinals, a game during which Sell scored all four goals.
“There were times we’d play teams and they knew Maria was the one (to stop),” said Aragon assistant coach Lauren Padilla. “And most times she still managed to dominate.”
Despite being the focus on every defense she faced, Sell still managed to put the Dons on her shoulders. She finished with a PAL-leading 112 goals this season, which was second-most in CCS, according to the teams that report stats to MaxPreps.com. She also helped guide the Dons to a third-place finish in the PAL Bay Division standings and a second straight semifinal appearance in the CCS playoffs and she caps her senior season as the Daily Journal’s Girls’ Water Polo Athlete of the Year.
Sell had a fairly good idea she was going to have to step up her game on both ends of the pool if the Dons were to be successful this season. Having lost a pair of key starters to graduation, and a third to a transfer, there was not a lot of experience for the 2018 season. Her concerns were realized when the Dons opened the season with a 4-2 loss to St. Ignatius.
The Daily Journal covered that season opener and the headline in the paper the next day was, “Dons have work to do.”
Sell hung that on her bedroom wall.
“That was absolutely true,” Sell said. “There were only four returning varsity players. I had low expectations.”
While the team surrounding her finally gelled and started to play better, it was Sell who was leading the way. She had already established herself as one not afraid to shoot from anywhere in the pool over the previous three seasons and polo novices had to wonder what coach would give a player the green light to shoot any time, anywhere.
But that was Sell’s game. An athlete in every sense of the word who played several sports growing up — “When I was younger, I played softball and football, so I could always throw,” Sell said — she had developed a knack for being a dangerous threat to shoot — and score — any time she had the ball, no matter where she was playing. She was so dominant on the ball, that many of her teammates would simply defer to Sell to be the team’s goal scorer, despite the fact she was more than willing to share the wealth.
But when it came time for the Dons to step it up, everyone knew who was getting the ball.
“It was hard for me to adjust to that and have to take more control of the game,” Sell said. “There were a few games where I didn’t want to be the ball hog. … But if we were down, I’d say, ‘It’s not about hurting feelings and (instead) hoping you’re doing it for the good of the team.’ Being a good teammate meant taking control of the game in the hopes of having a better outcome.
“Sometimes, Maria had to take over.”
Sell wasn’t always such a willing shooter. Padilla said when she was coaching a 12-year-old Sell on a U16 club team in the Junior Olympics, one of their matches went to a shootout.
“She was too scared to shoot,” Padilla said. There was another shootout later in the tournament and Sell was, again, in line to take one of the shots. Which she did — and made.
“Her realizing that she could do it, it was kind of like flipping a switch,” Padilla continued. “She knew she couldn’t rely on anyone else to score or play defense this year, she did it.”
Sell did need a reminder during the season, however. Randy Kalbus, her first coach at Burlingame Aquatic Club and longtime water polo fixture on the Peninsula, was serving as a referee during the Aragon-Burlingame match. After the Dons rallied for a 12-9 win, one in which Sell scored nine times, Kalbus scolded Sell.
“He lectured Maria and told her she doesn’t shoot enough,” Steve Sell said.
It was just a reminder that the team’s success was predicated on Sell’s success and that was the mantra on both ends of the pool. As good a scorer Sell is, she is equally adept on defense. She led the team in steals with 68 and it was not uncommon to see Sell purposely trail the play before picking the pocket of the unsuspecting opponent.
But Sell was about more than just thievery. She would do what was necessary to not only stop the opposition, but also to be the first option offensively. Whether it was on a fast break or she brought the ball up herself, she had to be mentally prepared to go from defense to offense in the blink of an eye.
“I would mostly play perimeter defense, but I was always confident to drop back and help the ‘D’ throughout the season,” Sell said.
When she did drop deeper into the defensive end, it did stagnate the Dons’ offense a bit, which was the main issue with that season-opening loss to S.I. After getting the ball back on a Flynn block or a turnover, it took so long for the Dons to get into their offense, they were always racing the shot clock. As the season went along, Sell would bring the ball up and make the decision to shoot or pass.
You can probably guess which option she chose more often than not.
“My dad always said, ‘Shooters shoot,’” Sell said.