The Sunnyvale Fremont Firebirds water polo team won the El Camino League in 2017. Led in part by goalkeeper and now four-year varsity starter June Vanlerberghe, last year’s squad went 11-3 in league play before defeating Wilcox 6-5 in the championship game.
As a junior last year, Vanlerberghe is the only returning starter on the Firebirds roster this season. In total, the Firebirds had 14 seniors graduate from last season’s team. Only one other non-starter from the 2017 squad, Tanvi Gaitonde, remains on the varsity roster.
Despite the large turnover, by virtue of winning the league title, Fremont was forced to move up into the much tougher De Anza division. According to Santa Clara Valley Athletic League (SCVAL) bylaws, the top two teams in the El Camino division must move up to the De Anza if the bottom two teams in the De Anza elect to move down.
With a young team and a daunting schedule, the Firebirds are 0-2 to start the new season, having dropped their games by scores of 17-3 and 16-3. On the bright side of the equation, the Firebirds have Vanlerberghe leading by example both in and out of the pool. The senior goalkeeper was making point blank saves and battling for loose balls throughout their most recent match against Gunn.
“We need to remind the new girls that this isn’t the way it always goes,” remarked Vanlerberghe, referring to herself and Gaitonde as the team leaders with championship experience. “We need to try and keep their spirits up throughout the season. Even if we’re going to lose most of our games, at least we can improve throughout the season. Not winning is tough, but improving from the first game all the way through to the last game is our main goal.”
“We’re a young team,” said Fremont Head Coach Moris Clark. “What I tell them to do is to hustle, make mistakes and learn. It’s going to take some time, the game moves a little bit faster than they are used to, but they are getting better. They are learning and you can see it in the game.”
One of the noteworthy corrections the young squad made against Gunn was executing on the six-on-five situation. After some struggles earlier in the game on the power play, Fremont executed nicely late in the game. Senior Ellen Ulitsky used her left-handedness to her advantage by scoring from in tight on the right side of the goal. Her shot went perfectly to the far side, off the post and in.
“Ellen is actually a rower, she’s getting recruited to college for her rowing, so that’s where she gets her strength,” noted Vanlerberghe. “She’s amazing, one of our faster swimmers and being a lefty definitely helps, getting those shots from the right side.”
Fremont will next play on Thursday, Sept. 13 when they host Los Gatos.