Before becoming the greatest goalkeeper in the storied history of Arroyo Grande High girls water polo, Briana Lippert’s association with the position was one of abject distain.
“I used to play soccer … but I never wanted to play goalie. I hated it,” she said. “The goal was too big, and you’d have to dive on the ground all the time. It just didn’t appeal to me.”
With a shorter net and softer landing spot, Lippert flourished into a two-time section MVP between the pipes.
And she’s far from the only Eagle who has gone from complete newcomer to key contributor in Arroyo Grande’s decadelong — and counting — local dominance in girls water polo. In fact, very few who helped turn the Eagles into a PAC 7 powerhouse under longtime coach Steven Allen came to the pool as a polo prodigy.
“We’re really happy with what we’re able to do once they come in as freshmen,” said Allen, who started coaching the girls in 2000 and also took over the boys program in 2001. “We’ve just been very fortunate to get great girls that have been coming through. We always get that next crop of players.”
Allen and his team have won 106 straight league games dating back to the start of the 2003 season. Since the 2001-02 season, they are 113-5 in PAC 7 contests. They have won 70 percent of all of their matches (265-111), including three straight CIF-Southern Section titles from 2008-10.
The seemingly endless turnstile of All-CIF standouts — 29 since 2002 — did not appear overnight.
Nor did their skills develop any quicker.
“I would always get really frustrated in the water early on, because I didn’t really understand the sport yet,” Brookyln Vander Veen, a senior who was second team All-CIF last year, said.
“Towards the end, I started figuring out how to play.”
Vander Veen had never swum competitively before high school, playing volleyball and running track as a freshman, when a friend suggested she give water polo a shot.
“My dad wanted me to do three sports anyways, so I said why not try it?” said Vander Veen, who leads the team in goals this season with 33 through 17 games.
“It wasn’t the same as most sports. I don’t know — I just liked it.”
It has taken hard work and dedication from players and coaches as well as the support of the school to help the program reach new heights — and stay there.
The team practices five mornings a week and five times a week after school. The Eagles travel up and down the state seeking out premier tournaments and contests — including this week’s SoCal Championships in Irvine — against teams who will test them in ways local schools have not.
“Because of our success,” Allen said, “the school has really let us venture out to great tournaments, which really keeps us at the highest level.”
Training continues in the offseason, when the morning schedule stays the same and evening practices are scaled back. The majority of the team will join the swim team in the spring to stay in shape and improve their stroke.
Every two years, the Eagles take a two-week training sojourn to countries such as Spain or New Zealand.
“We’ll really just train with whoever will take us,” Allen said.
Arroyo Grande is at an advantage when it returns to the county, too, thanks to outdoor facilities not available at most area schools.
Allen said that plays a role in explaining why most PAC 7 teams have struggled to compete with the Eagles.
“There’s been a lot of coaching turnover,” he said. “Some of it is facilities — we’re blessed to have some great facilities here — and then another big chunk of it is that we’re putting in the time that some other schools either don’t have the opportunity to or whatever it might be.”
Eleven former Eagles have gone on to play Division I water polo, including Lippert, who played three years at Cal, and Katie Sverchek, who scored 16 goals last season as a freshman at Arizona State — the nation’s third-ranked team.
Four Eagles have been named CIF divisional MVP: Erin Higginbotham in 2007-08, Lippert and Hannah Lounsbury in 2008-09 and Lippert and Melanie Johnson in 2009-10.
“In girls water polo, if you’ve got a goalie, then you’re pretty much set,” Allen said. “Briana was the best goalie that I’ve ever had.”
Lippert was just as glowing in speaking of her former coach.
“I think he’s just a great person,” she said. “He obviously knows what he’s talking about … but coaching is more than that. He’s really approachable and nice to be around, but is good at motivating the girls to work hard.
“If a coach doesn’t have those qualities, they are not as effective.”
Perhaps it comes as no surprise then to learn Allen was absent from the poolside for the first half of a league tournament semifinal against San Luis Obispo in early 2003 — Arroyo Grande’s last PAC 7 defeat.
Allen, then a student at Cal Poly, was stuck in class and by the time he rejoined his team, it was too late. A comeback attempt fell short as the Eagles lost to the Tigers, 6-5.
“We had beaten San Luis by 12 earlier that season,” Allen, still smarting from the defeat, said. “We came all the way back to tie it, but we just couldn’t win it.”
That has not been a problem since.
Arroyo Grande’s 106 straight league wins are third in CIF-Southern Section history. Redlands of the Citrus Belt League held the record of 113 before Agoura defeated Newbury Park last week to win its 114th straight Maramonte League match.
Agoura, which Arroyo Grande will face Thursday in the opening round of the SoCal Championships, needs to lose a league game first before the Eagles can have a chance to capture the mark.
Until then, the focus remains on staying perfect in the PAC 7 and competing for a CIF-Southern Section Division 3 title.
There is no state championship in girls water polo because other regions play in the fall.
“We’ve been in the (CIF) finals or semifinals every year since ’06,” Allen said. “This year will be a tough one, but our expectations still are to make the semis and see what happens.”
Educated coaching has been a constant at Arroyo Grande with Allen owning nearly two decades of experience, but the expertise doesn’t end there.
Aware of how many of his potential stars enter the sport with little or no knowledge of its intricacies, Allen makes sure to employ junior varsity coaches who can help groom the rookies.
His current girls JV coach is also a former player of Allen’s, Stephanie Stern. Stern was a first team all-CIF performer in the 2008-09 and the 2009-10 seasons and a member of all three sectional-champion squads.
Like so many before and after her, Stern said she arrived on the team with no clue how to play water polo — “I just liked the water” — but left as tangible evidence that Arroyo Grande’s continued success is built, not born.
“The first year we won CIF, I just remember the seniors setting a tone that we were going to win that year even though we weren’t supposed to,” Stern recalled. “They would be on everyone about that from the start.
“So then by the time we were seniors, that’s how we were. The culture had already been built and if we didn’t uphold it, we would have been disappointed in ourselves.”