Rachel Gruetzmacher spent her entire high school water polo career as an underdog. Connor Fisher was a standout prep runner who was recruited and originally signed at the Division I level.
The two athletes arrived at Cuesta College by different avenues but had similar impacts this year, leading a pair of teams each to athletic achievements while en route to being named the school’s Outstanding Athletes of the Year at its annual banquet Tuesday.
Gruetzmacher, who according to Cuesta head coach Pete Schuler wasn’t even her team’s MVP as a senior at Atascadero High, blossomed in her two years on the Cougars’ women’s water polo team.
She leaves as the school’s record holder in single-season goals (100), goals in a game (eight, three times) and single-season shooting percentage (58.6 percent) in addition to posting the second-highest career goal total (185) in team history.
After a career on Atascadero squads constantly overshadowed by Arroyo Grande’s powerhouse program, Gruetzmacher made a name for herself at the junior college level as a two-time CCCAA all-state selection and a 2014 All-American.
“I think that’s what kept my fire going,” she said. “I’m from little Atascadero, A.G. always had all the big things going for them, so I said I’ve got to make something for myself.”
Her raw talent and aggressive nature translated to swimming success as well, as Gruetzmacher set four individual Cuesta records and five relay school records. She qualified for the state meet in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles and the 50 butterfly — all of which she holds school records for in addition to the 100 butterfly.
“Rachel is just a fish,” Schuler said.
Her times in the pool were enough to earn a scholarship from UC Santa Barbara, which she had initially accepted until reversing course when a spot on the Long Beach State women’s water polo team was offered.
“Water polo is my true passion,” said Gruetzmacher, who also received the George Silveria Award for a standout career as a Cuesta student-athlete on Wednesday. “I’m better at swimming, but I just love water polo. It was my big opportunity and I couldn’t pass it up.”
Addex Schuler: “I’m certain that when she gets to Long Beach State, she’ll be a better player there than she was at Cuesta College and when she was at Atascadero High, because Rachel is a fierce competitor. When she goes up against better players, she’ll become a better player herself.”
For Fisher, the question heading into his year with Cuesta cross country and track and field wasn’t one of talent, but rather would he be able — and willing — to acclimate to the junior college level after a season at Cal Poly.
“I’d had a few Cal Poly athletes run for me in the past, and those weren’t always good experiences because they come from typically very good track and field programs in the past and they were very successful in high school,” Cuesta coach Brian Locher said. “Usually they have a very specific way of doing things that they think is the right way, and they are not always willing to listen to you as a coach.”
Locher said his concerns dissipated the first time the two spoke over coffee at the Blackhorse Espresso and Bakery, where Fisher assured the coach his intentions were to be a leader amongst his teammates but follow the strategies Locher implemented.
“I had an open mind about the whole thing,” said Fisher, a Bakersfield native who left Cal Poly after one year for what he called a mix of reasons. “I was willing to work hard for anybody.”
Fisher finished first at the WSC cross country championships, second at the CCCAA regional meet and third at the statewide event.
He is the Cuesta track record holder in the 3,000- and 5,000-meter races and fourth in the 1,500 and 10,000. He has qualified for this weekend’s state championships in San Mateo in the 5,000 and 10,000.
Fisher said the relationship forged with Locher made him a better athlete both on and off the course.
“He was able to internalize the training and personalize it to what I needed,” said Fisher, who will run at Chico State next year. “He saw that he needed a role as a team leader and I fit that for him. We were able to work together to create the team that we had and just make it fun.”
The Cuesta banquet also recognized its scholar athletes of the year in wrestling’s John Sinclair and water polo and swimming’s Molly Casey.
Former coach and retiring professor Jani Johnson received a standing ovation when she was named the Alberta Deutsche Fan of the Year.
Each sport nominated someone for Athlete of the Year, with coaches giving a five-minute speech about how their athlete exemplifies the award.
Highlights include Morro Bay graduate Jerrica Crosby, who is expected to sign on with the Sonoma State women’s basketball team after becoming the all-time blocks leader in Cuesta history.
Women’s volleyball coach Roche Nystrom spoke about nominee Whitney Meyer fitting daily practices into the lunch break of her full-time job, and playing half the season with a broken arm. Wrestling coach Joe Dansby serenaded 141-pounder Connor Pollock and the rest of the audience with a personalized rendition of the Miley Cyrus song, “Wrecking Ball” to describe Pollock’s scoring acumen and distain for sprints.
“We definitely have this Cougar Pride,” Gruetzmacher said. “We’d always call each other Cougars, and there was always that bond. They’ve definitely helped me along my journey.”