SAN JOSE — The Central Coast Section playoffs were the playground for the Sacred Heart Prep girls’ water polo team for nearly a decade, winning the Division II title every year from 2007 to 2016.
That all changed in 2017 when Leland topped the Gators in the first-ever Open Division championship game.
The Gators underwent some changes following that loss. Jamie Frank took over the program, and the pressure to constantly defend the title turned into a hunger to regain the crown.
Two seasons later, the Gators are back as the best team in CCS as top-seeded SHP routed No. 2 Leland, 17-7. The Chargers were the two-time defending Open Division champ at Independence High School Saturday morning.
“I could not be more happy,” said Frank, who after years as an assistant with the SHP boys’ team took his first celebratory swim as a head coach Saturday.
“It’s something we’ve been working toward the last two years. It’s a testament to the program built by Jon Burke (the coach during the Gators’ nine-year reign).”
SHP (25-3), which outscored its three CCS opponents 39-20, took command of the match early, scoring goals on its first four shots and leading 5-1 after the first period.
“It’s been a season theme to start slowly in the first quarter,” said SHP junior hole set Eleanor Facey, who led the Gators with four goals. “We set the tone (early Saturday).”
Ella Woodhead and Bella Bachler each added hat tricks for SHP, while Alexandra Szczerba and Annabel Facey scored two goals apiece. Szczerba added a team-high four assists, while Bachler and goaltender Megan Norris each had two assists.
How dominant was the Gators’ performance? Even Norris got into the scoring act, scoring on a length-of-the-pool shot that the Leland goalie misplayed to end the third period, giving SHP a 14-5 lead.
“That was great,” said Eleanor Facey about Norris' goal. “She's always shooting those (in practice).”
But it was Norris’ defensive prowess that highlighted her performance. The junior was a brick wall against Leland (17-12), finishing with 17 saves, including seven in the third quarter alone. With Norris stoning the Chargers at every turn, it allowed the Gators to be more aggressive on offense, knowing that Norris had their backs.
Down 5-1 after one period, Leland battled back in the second, scoring four goals to trail 8-5 at halftime. But the Gators still had another card to play and they pulled it out for the second half as they started pounding the ball into Eleanor Facey in the set. Fifteen seconds into the third quarter, Eleanor Facey took a pass in the set from Woodhead, used a power move to get around the defender and buried her shot for a 9-5 SHP lead.
After a pair of fastbreak goals from Szczerba, Eleanor Facey drew a 5-meter penalty shot that Bachler rifled home for a 12-5 with 1:29 left in the period.
“When we’re playing well (in the hole set) it forces other teams to drop (to defend),” Frank said. “That then opens up the outside.”
And while the Gators were dealing with a junior national team player in Leland’s Jenna Flynn, who they kept in check by limiting her to just two goals, Frank wanted the Chargers to have to deal with Eleanor Facey.
“She deserves the right to have other teams worry about her, as well,” Frank said.
That third period turned out to be the deciding stanza as SHP outscored Leland 6-0 to take a 14-5 lead into the final period.
Seven minutes later the Gators won their first-ever Open Division title.
“We had [nine] years of winning CCS. There were a lot of expectations. … It was taken for granted (that we would win CCS titles),” said Eleanor Facey, who was a freshman when Leland snapped the Gators’ streak with the 2017 title.
“It was a reality check. We realized this was something we had to work for. … All we wanted to do (Saturday) was win.”