It’s been some year for water polo in Palm Desert.
For the first time in school history Palm Desert High School will be sending its girls’ water polo team to a CIF championship game Saturday, where they’ll play Yorba Linda for the second time this year. The Aztecs have won 27 games this season, and lost just three. One of those three, however, was to Yorba Linda.
But it goes back farther than that. The Mustangs beat the Aztecs last year too — in the CIF Southern Section Division VI semifinals no less, keeping Palm Desert out of the championship game.
“We’re in a lot better shape this year, and in the game earlier this year, we were missing two starters, and I think that will be a big difference,” said senior player Addi Halligan. “We all want it so badly this year, and we’re so close, and it would be so much better to beat Yorba Linda in the finals instead of another team.
“We were glad Yorba Linda won the other semifinal game, because if we’re going to win this thing, we want it to be against Yorba Linda,” Halligan added.
There’s another unusual element to the season in that the girls’ will be trying to replicate the performance of the boys’ water polo team, which won its first CIF championship earlier this year.
There are a lot of friendships between the two teams and the boys are hoping to attend the girls’ match Saturday.
“Our two teams are really close,” says goalie Savannah Clyde. “They gave us a lot of hope by winning CIF and taught us a lot of what we know and give us that knowledge of how (the) CIF (playoffs) work and what to do.”
While Clyde gives a lot of credit to the boys’ squad, certainly much of the reason for the strong run can be accredited to first-year head coach Michelle Stein Valovic, who played for Palm Desert, then played at USC for four years, where she was on teams that finished second in the country three times and third once.
“I’ve taught them a few different defenses that I learned at USC … and coaching will maybe come into play Saturday with the different defenses, but the main reason for the success of these girls is that they play year-round on club teams,” Stein Valovic said.
She met her husband, Pavol, who was a graduate assistant for the women’s water polo team at USC, while playing in college. Now he’s the coach at Xavier Prep High School and the two spend endless hours discussing their common bond.
“We talk about water polo until there’s nothing left to talk about,” she says. “He and I are always strategizing and I use my notes from ‘SC, and the depth that we look into these things could be uncommon for a high school team.”
Saturday’s CIF Southern Section championship game against Yorba Linda will be held at 5:30 p.m. at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center in Irvine.