By Rhiannon Potkey
Four years ago, they had only eight players and four wins. Six months ago, they still didn't have their own pool.
On May 6, they captured a national title.
Completing a rapid rags-to-riches ascent, the Cal Lutheran women's water polo team defeated Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 10-6 in the championship game of the Collegiate Division III National Championships at UC Santa Cruz.
"This is just amazing," CLU senior Michele Hernandez said. "To think about becoming national champions back when we first started didn't even seem possible. I could never have dreamed of that."
The title was only the second national team championship in school history. Cal Lutheran won the NAIA football championship in 1971.
Making its first appearance in the three-day tournament, CLU (21-10) swept through its five games. The Regals defeated Grove City College (Pa.), Washington & Jefferson (Pa.), Cal State East Bay and Claremont twice.
They used a balanced offensive attack and solid defense to beat fellow Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference member Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the title game.
Nicole Pecel had three goals and two assists, Stevie Blanchard had two goals and three assists, and Jill Jensen had seven steals, two goals and two assists.
"Coming in here for the first time I wasn't sure whether we would rise to the occasion or flop, and we sure did rise to the occasion," Cal Lutheran coach Craig Rond said. "I think the key is our team is in such good condition. In the final game, we never looked tired or worn out."
Rond started the water polo program at Cal Lutheran four years ago hoping at least a few players who could swim would come out for the team. The Regals finished their inaugural season 4-16, but gradually established a foundation through recruiting.
They increased their win total to nine in 2005, 11 last year and broke out this year with the 21 victories and national crown. The title campaign coincided with the opening of the new on-campus Samuelson Aquatics Center five months ago.
Before having their own pool, the players traveled to Oaks Christian School each day to train and practice.
The only senior on the team, Hernandez has witnessed every step along the program's progression.
"We were just a little rag-tag group of players that hardly knew what we were doing four years ago. We were happy just to score twogoals in a game," she said. "Now we are a small army, and everyone got in the pool this weekend and contributed and dominated."
Although CLU's players were confident they could win the national title, they knew more than just skill would be required.
"You always have to have the passion and the heart," Hernandez said. "If you don't have the desire, the talent is not important. We were ready to work hard and put everything out on the line."
Jensen was rewarded for her defense in being named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. Katie Windsor, Marianne Paradowski, Ashley Bentz, Pecel and Blanchard were all-tournament selections. Rond was named Division III Coach of the Year.
"This group is the true essence of a team," Rond said. "It doesn't have anything to do with them winning or losing, it's just an incredible group of individuals. It's a wonderful feeling to watch them win this because they work so hard."
The team celebrated its championship during the van ride back to campus before preparing for a long night of studying. Final exams began the day after their victory in the pool.
Reprinted with permission from Ventura County Star, May 7, 2007.