Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - November 11, 2011

Gunn girls are hoping for something historic

Titans will be taking aim at their first-ever section title; Menlo boys, SHP and M-A girls open title defenses Saturday

by Keith Peters

The winningest team in Gunn girls' water polo history produced 23 victories, that coming last year when the Titans finished 23-6 after losing to eventual champion Menlo-Atherton in the Central Coast Section Division I semifinals. Gunn was seeded No. 4 for the playoffs, the team's highest seeding ever.

While that team set the bar, the 2011 Titans can raise it. Gunn heads into the postseason with a No. 3 seed in Division I and a 20-6 mark. In order to tie the program's all-time record in the sport, the Titans need to win three straight matches — including the championship.

Gunn coach Mark Hernandez says his team is prepared to do just that.

"Specifically, we took some losses early in the season so that we would be prepared to win three games in CCS," said Hernandez. "Last season, we opened with a tournament at Lincoln (High). We won all three games, by scores of (something like) 24-2, 27-1 and 13-0. At the time, that's what (I felt) the program needed; to get out and build some confidence, and see that they were, in fact, a good team.

"Heading into this year, we knew we were a good team, and wanted to prove that we could be elite. So, we scheduled our first game against defending CCS (Division I) champ (and current No. 4 seed) Menlo-Atherton, and beat them 17-8."

The very next day Gunn took on North Coast Section favorite Las Lomas and lost. The following weekend, the Titans faced East Bay powerhouses Campolindo and defending NCS champ Monte Vista (Danville), losing both. One week later, Gunn hosted Campolindo and lost again, but improved from a 12-5 defeat to a setback in sudden death overtime.

"This was the most difficult stretch in our program's history," said Hernandez, "and we came out of it 3-5. But, we knew it was the best thing for our team, to get out and compete against the best the area had to offer so that when November rolled around, we would be battle-tested. We knew it would have been easier (and perhaps more fun) to start off 6-0 (a record we could have easily achieved had we kept our tournament schedule from last year), but we knew that wouldn't help us do something historic."

While Gunn has played in only six of the 16 section tournaments dating to 1996 when playoffs were held in the fall and the spring — failing to qualify for from 2000 to 2007 — the Titans have made steady improvement. That coincides with the arrival of current senior Elizabeth Anderson, who has played on teams that lost in the first round (her freshman season), lost in the quarterfinals (as a sophomore) and then to eventual champion Menlo-Atherton in the semifinals last season.

The natural progression for Gunn, then, is to take that final step in Anderson's final season. She obviously has made an impact for the Titans, much like she did Saturday as she poured in nine goals in a 17-9 dunking of defending champ Los Altos in the SCVAL De Anza Division Tournament at Monta Vista High in Cupertino.

Gunn was the tourney's No. 1 seed after beating the No. 2-seeded Eagles in the regular-season finale. Beating Los Altos in two of three meetings this season is a first for Gunn.

"Nine goals for Elizabeth. Probably the most dominant performance I've ever seen in a championship game," said Hernandez. "Elizabeth has been a player to build around. She does so many things at an elite level and, she says, she likes to win. She plays the game hard, and plays the right way and, as the cliché goes, makes everyone around her better."

Anderson, who will play for Santa Clara next season, scored 16 goals in the two playoff victories now has 131 goals this season. She helped the Titans outscore the Eagles, 11-4, in the second half. Sophomore Elizabeth Anderson added five goals for Gunn, which topped Los Altos twice after losing the teams' first meeting in overtime.

The tournament triumph immediately thrust the Titans into the CCS title picture, with only No. 2 Leland (21-5) and No. 1 St. Francis (19-6) seeded ahead of them.

"After what we did this past weekend, I wouldn't put anything past us," Hernandez said. "Los Altos is an elite team, the second seed in Division II, and we simply overwhelmed them. We played aggressive offense and active defense, at a very impressive level. I knew we could play like that that but, until Saturday, I hadn't seen it.

"Also relevant, I think, is that beating Los Altos (especially the way we did) took a monkey off of our backs. Until about two weeks ago, they had our number and felt that we couldn't beat them. So, to beat them for a second time in a row, in the biggest game of the year, and in a very convincing fashion, gives us a lot of confidence.

"Having said that," Hernandez continued, "we do have a much more athletic grokup than we've ever had before. There are people that do not start on this year's junior varsity team that would have started on varsity teams in the past. We've had a lot of good athletes come through the pipes the last few years."

Hernandez credited former coach Aileen Delaney for her work four years ago with the current seniors.

"And, I think, our success has breeded success," Hernandez said. "Now, people know that if they come to Gunn, they can be a part of a winning culture; a team that works hard, works smart, and plays well together."

That pretty much describes the Gunn and and Palo Alto boys, as well. Both squads played well as a unit while posting first-round victories in CCS Division I playoff action Tuesday night.

Palo Alto cruised to a 14-4 win over No. 11 Pioneer (13-15) behind four goals by Nelson Perla-Ward. The host Vikings had a balanced scoring effort in addition to clearing their bench, even giving players brought up from the frosh-soph team for the playoffs some pool time.

Gunn also advanced with an 18-8 romp over Lynbrook at Los Gatos High as freshman Ari Wayne poured in five goals and junior Michael Znidarsic added four. Sophomore Coby Wayne and senior Tyler Wilson each contributed three goals.

The No. 6-seeded Vikings (16-13) will face No. 3 Menlo-Atherton (13-11) in the quarterfinals on Saturday while the No. 7-seeded Titans (16-12) will take on No. 2 Bellarmine (17-9).

In Division II, defending champion and No. 2 seed Menlo School (16-8) will face No. 7 Aptos (16-9) on Saturday while No. 1 seed Sacred Heart Prep (16-10) will take on No. 9 Carmel (16-9).

SHP earned the top seed after avenging its only loss of the West Catholic Athletic League regular season with a 14-12 overtime win over No. 1 seed Bellarmine in the league playoff finale Saturday night in Atherton. That gave the Gators the overall league crown, since there was a three-way tie first to end the regular season.

The Gators trailed 9-2 early in the third quarter before rallying, with Bret Hinrichs scoring the game-tying goal to send the match to overtime. Zach Churukian gave SHP the lead for good in the second mandatory OT period. Both Hinrichs and Churukian finished with four goals each. Harrison Enright got the second goal in second OT to seal it. He finished with three goals.

Junior goalie Will Runkel had 12 saves for the Gators after getting 16 in a 9-7 semifinal win over St. Francis.

In the girls' WCAL playoff finale, St. Francis upended top-seeded Sacred Heart Prep, 7-4.

"While last night's game didn't go as we would have liked, we are still very pleased to be co-champions of the WCAL," said SHP coach Jon Burke. "Each year we set a league championship as one of our goals and we were able to achieve that again this year. To us, it's the body of work that is most important. Going undefeated in the round robin over the course of seven weeks is not an easy thing to do, especially when you are playing in the WCAL. I think most people would agree with that. It did not come together for us in the league tournament, but we still feel good about being the regular-season champions."

Despite the loss, four-time defending CCS champ Sacred Heart Prep (21-5) still received a No. 1 seed in Division II and will begin defense of its title on Saturday.

Also opening on Saturday will be Menlo-Atherton (13-10), the No. 4 seed in Division I.

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