Mark Hernandez was on board as head coach in 2009 and helped turn what had been a moribund program into a respectable one.
Prior to his arrival, the Titans had never advanced past the first round of the Central Coast Section playoffs and, from 2000 to 2007, had missed them altogether. Under Hernandez, Gunn not only ended its lengthy losing streak to Paly, but reached the CCS quarterfinals.
In 2010 and '11, Gunn reached the section semifinals — losing to the eventual champion each time.
The turnaround can be attributed to a number of factors. Having a full-time, on-campus teacher/coach like Hernandez helped. Finally getting a new pool also was a huge improvement, as was getting players involved year round in aquatics — fall water polo, spring swimming and summer water polo.
"They have about a month off in the fall, but that's it," Hernandez said.
A stable coaching staff was another big factor, as was an upgraded schedule and victories over teams like Paly and Los Altos.
"Slaying the dragon really helped," Hernandez explained. "Los Altos had been a big nemesis for us every year."
The dragon officially was felled last season when Gunn beat the Eagles in the team's second meeting during the regular season and again in the playoffs while winning both SCVAL De Anza Division titles for the first time.
Gunn went 11-1 in league last season on the way to finishing 21-7, both the best marks in program history. The Titans, however, are on their way to improving upon both.
The Titans' 6-4 victory over host Palo Alto on Tuesday moved Gunn to 6-0 and atop the division strandings and 10-3 overall. Since Gunn never has reached the CCS finals, there are plenty of goals to achieve this season.
"We have a bunch of good girls," said Hernandez. "Everyone is on the same page. We're not as explosive (as last year). But, this team plays well together."
It will have to because the Titans are no longer the underdogs in most games. The hunter now has become the hunted.
"I'm not used to coaching that way," Hernandez said.
Hernandez also has been forced the change the game plan a bit.
"That's what so fun about coaching high school," said Hernandez. "You get (and have) to re-invent yourself every year. This year, for example, we may not have the firepower we've had in the past years — we lost three of our top four goal-scorers from last year, including Elizabeth Anderson (now playing for Santa Clara University) — but we're re-defining ourselves as a defensive-minded team."
Gunn turned in a fine defensive effort against Palo Alto while getting its most balanced scoring effort of the season to beat the Vikings (4-2, 8-7) for the fifth time in the past seven meetings.
Palo Alto did win a battle, holding Gunn scoring leader Caroline Anderson to just one goal. The Titans, however, got solo goals from Lauren Lesyna, Maggie Sockness, Nia Gardner and Erica Watkins — plus a goal from Paly — in pulling out the important victory.
The own goal came in the fourth quarter with Gunn holding a 4-2 lead. Anderson had the ball in front of the Paly cage, before it got knocked loose and then inadvertently swept into the cage by the Paly goalie.
The Vikings bounced back and made it 5-3 on senior Martine LeClerc's second goal, but Watkins provided some insurance with a goal from outside with 2:45 left. Paly's Tara Lawrence found the cage with 2:25 to play for a 6-4 match, but Gunn's defense stiffened and controlled play the rest of the way.
Paly did a good job of limiting Anderson's offense by double-teaming the junior nearly every time she touched the ball. Lesyna also drew attention from two of three Paly defenders at the 2-meter position, forcing other Titans to step up. Fortunately for Hernandez, he got just enough.
Defensively, Gunn tried to force Paly to shoot from the outside and was successful to a point — LeClerc got her goal from way outside after finding herself unguarded. That tied the match at 2 in the second quarter. It remained that way until Anderson scored her only goal with 3:34 left in the third period. The Titans pulled away from there with sophomore goalie Sam Acker making a handful of saves.
Both teams struggled with their offense, partially due to the defenses, and Hernandez acknowledged that other players will have to be involved in order to take the pressure off Anderson, a junior lefty who can light it up if left open.
And while Hernandez was hesitant to compare last season with this year, he did acknowledge one difference in the squads.
"Last year's team probably played its best game in September, when we lost to Campolindo," he said. "This team's best game should be in November."
The CCS finals are November 17.
In other girls' water polo action this week:
Menlo-Atherton got 12 saves from goalie Sierra Sheeper and three goals each from Kiki Canny, Sophia Caryotakis, Sami Henze and Jenna Swatz in a 17-9 win over visiting Burlingame to open the PAL Bay Division season on Wednesday. Jessica Heilman had nine steals to help spark the offense.
Castilleja bounced back from a loss to host Sacred Heart Prep on Tuesday with a 17-6 dunking of visiting Aragon in a PAL Bay Division opener on Wednesday. Stephanie Flamen and Fernanda Kramer each tallied four goals for the Gators (6-4) with Grace Arnold adding three.
A day earlier, host Sacred Heart Prep got 10 goalie saves from Kelly Moran and a pair of goals from Caitlin Stuewe in a 7-3 nonleague win over Castilleja. SHP (9-4) grabbed a 5-1 halftime lead, blanking the visitors in the first and third periods. Anna Yu tallied a pair of goals for Castilleja..
Also in Atherton, Kaelen Dunn scored five goals and Audrey Flower added four, but it still wasn't enough as host Menlo School dropped a 12-10 decision to Mercy-Burlingame in PAL Ocean Division play. The Knights (4-2, 5-5) fell behind by 7-2 at halftime before putting on a late rally that fell short.
Boys' water polo
Menlo-Atherton opened its PAL Bay Division season with a 17-5 dunking of visiting Burlingame on Wednesday. Zach Cogan, Zach Deal and Harrison Holland-McCowan all scored three goals for the Bears (1-0, 7-7).
With senior Bret Pinsker scoring five goals, host Palo Alto handed rival Gunn a 17-7 defeat in SCVAL De Anza Division action.
The Vikings (4-2, 10-4), coming off a 4-0 finish in the lower division of the NCS vs. CCS Challenge last weekend, pulled away from a one-goal advantage after one quarter with six goals in the second period to grab a 9-3 halftime advantage.
Senior Quinn Rockwell added three goals while seniors Nolan Perla-Ward and Brian Berry added two goals each. Coby Wayne and Spencer Miner each tallied two goals to pace the Titans.
In Belmont, Nick Bisconti scored six goals as Menlo School opened its PAL Bay Division season with a 19-4 victory over host Carlmont. Every field player for the Knights (8-4) scored a goal. In addition, 11 players added assists and 11 players had steals, with Alexander Carlisle leading the team with four.
In Redwood City, Kyle Walden scored five goals for Priory in a 16-9 loss to host Sequoia in a PAL Ocean Division match. Mike Schembri and Will Xu each added two goals for the Panthers (0-6), who led by 3-1 after one quarter and were tied at the half, 5-5, before the Cherokees pulled away.
Sacred Heart Prep, meanwhile, will be hitting the tournament road again this weekend at the S&R Sport tourney in Irvine. The Gators went 2-2 in this event last year, but will be bringing plenty of momentum this time after going 4-0 and winning the NCS vs. CCS Challenge last weekend.
It wasn't the best performance he had seen from his team, but Gators' coach Brian Kreutzkamp was more than pleased with the results.
"I didn't think we played great," he said, "but I'm glad we found a way to win."
Sacred Heart Prep (9-2) did enough good things and did them at the right time to come away with a 7-6 victory over San Ramon Valley in the championship match of the 32-team event that wrapped up Saturday at St. Francis High in Mountain View.
Stanford-bound Michael Holloway scored three goals, including the eventual winner with just under a minute to play, and fellow senior Will Runkel came up with 18 blocks — including two 5-meter penalty shots.
The Gators opened with an 18-2 win over Monte Vista (Danville) on Friday before beating neighborhood rival Menlo-Atherton, 10-3, in the quarterfinals. SHP reached the finals with an 11-2 win over Las Lomas in the semifinals earlier in the day as Runkel finished with 16 saves. He wound up with 53 blocks on the weekend.
Elsewhere in the tournament:
Palo Alto went 4-0 in the lower bracket and finished 17th following a pair of victories on Saturday. In the third round, the Vikings (9-4) defeated St. Ignatius, 11-9, behind four goals by Bret Pinsker. In the final round, Paly held off Soquel, 7-5, as Pinsker added three more goals. He finished with 15 goals for the tourney.
Menlo-Atherton lost a pair of matches on Saturday — 12-11 to Acalanes and 15-8 to Bellarmine — but, because the Bears won their opener on Friday, they finished eighth in the higher bracket.
Menlo School finished 3-1 following an 8-6 win over Campolindo and a 6-5 triumph over Los Altos on Saturday in the consolation finals. The Knights wound up ninth in the4 upper bracket. Nick Bisconti tallied nine goals in the four matches for Menlo.
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