There’s something in the water: Cross-town girls water polo rivalry strong in La Jolla

At the start of the new year, the first of two of legendary cross-town rivalry games will begin, when the La Jolla High School Vikings and The Bishop’s School Knights square off for girls water polo matches.

Game one is 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 3 at La Jolla High, 750 Nautilus St. and the second is almost a month later, 5:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1 at Bishop’s, 7607 La Jolla Blvd.

With close proximity to one another (and the ocean), the rivalry has meant high-quality play, including battles that bring out throngs of classmates and families. In 2016 and 2017, the teams fought it out for the San Diego CIF title.

But with neither team making it to the 2018 CIF championship match, the slate has been wiped clean for the 2018-2019 season.

“Bishop’s is a very winning team, that’s what they do,” said La Jolla High water polo coach Amy Jennings. “But we’re competitive, too, and provide a good match. It’s always a battle and we always want to win.”

Seemingly unheard of in water polo, Jennings added that most Vikings vs. Knights games end with a tight score, such as the 2017 championship series, which closed 2-1.

“It’s usually a one-goal game,” she said. “There are more possessions in water polo, so games have a high score. You would normally see closer to 9-10 scores or 8-6. It’s like football.” (In its first three victories this season, the Vikings won 15-4, 14-5 and 14-7.)

Doug Peabody, who’s coached the Knights since the water polo program started 22 years ago, doesn’t call it a “rivalry,” but pointed out, “La Jolla High School has been in our league from the beginning and there’s always been a cross-town competition, because it’s two very competitive teams that are located only a mile apart. We’re constantly vying for a title and the highest seed possible for CIF.”

Another possible reason for the rivalry — some of the players from both schools play on the off-season club team, which Peabody coaches.

“They are teammates off-season, and play against each other on-season,” he said.

Jennings has coached the Vikings for the last three seasons, and credits former coach Tom Atwell, “the father of the program,” for laying the foundation for a strong team.

Atwell started the program in 2000 (the year before the pool on campus opened), with what he describes as a small, core group of players.

“Very few of the girls came to high school with any water polo experience,” he said. “Coach Allison Gregory and I had to do a lot of work on development to try and get them competing on the same level as Coronado and Bishop’s.”

But coming from an aquatic-oriented community helped.

“We’ve also been lucky to have some great coaches in Coach Gregory, Dante LeGhetto, Tom Martinez, Keller Felt and now Amy,” Atwell said. “With so many quality people leading these girls, having the pool built in 2001, and a swim/water polo focused community, producing great players was bound to happen. There’s always been a great rivalry between our schools — from academic league, to mock trial, to any of our sports teams competing. In the last eight years or so, there has been a lot more parity between the two schools so the games have become super competitive!”

Team make-up

When it comes to this year’s Vikings team, Jennings said seniors Jensine Bugelli and Katy Koenig, and juniors Shauna Franke and Jessica Newell have been longtime strengths. The “fresh blood” this year includes freshmen Lucana “Lulu” Hirschfield and Natalie Dimeo. (And a handful of the aforementioned played on Peabody’s club team).

“We lost five seniors from last year (three were starters), but most of the girls are the same, as is the bond from last year. We’re going to work with that,” Jennings said.

The Knights are a relatively young team with seven freshmen, two sophomores, five juniors (all but one were on the 2017 CIF-winning team) and one senior. Two leading scorers from last year, Sophia Sanders and Katie Scott, have returned.

“Since we are so young, we’re looking to find ourselves again,” Peabody said. “We want to compete in our tough league, which consists of the strongest teams in San Diego. For us, it’s about staying on task and doing what we need to do fundamentally and improve throughout the year.”

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