With less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Cuesta women’s water polo team has positioned itself to make another run at the Western State Conference tournament next month.
Relying on a group of talented freshmen — many of whom are from San Luis Obispo County — and a pair of versatile sophomores, the Cougars have gone 18-6 overall and 4-2 against conference opponents this fall.
Head coach Pete Schuler, now in his 17th year at Cuesta, has been pleased with the Cougars’ success given the roster turnover. Sophomore Emily Crane was the only returner from last year’s team that finished 24-7 overall and placed second in the Western State Conference.
“We have the advantage of people who are coming in here with the focus on being part of a competitive team and working together,” Schuler said. “It’s getting them on the same page that’s the struggle, but I think we’ve been making good progress toward that this year.”
Crane earned first-team all-Western State Conference honors as a freshman after scoring 35 goals and handing out 34 assists. The sophomore left-hander has continued to facilitate Cuesta’s offense this season and leads the team with 51 assists and is third with 48 goals.
“She can swim, she can guard, she can set whenever we need her to,” Schuler said. “So she’s been able to fill in a lot of spots.”
Freshman Isabella Manuele, a 2015 Arroyo Grande High graduate, has made a smooth transition into the speed and intensity of the college game. A three-time all-CIF selection during her prep career, Manuele has surpassed Schuler’s preseason expectations and perhaps even her own.
Manuele leads the Cougars in attacks (107), goals (71) and fouls drawn (71). During Cuesta’s seven-game winning streak in late September, Manuele led the team in scoring six straight contests, including five consecutive five-goal performances.
“Isabella’s been a huge part of our power play,” Schuler said. “She’s drawn so many exclusions, so we’ve had a lot of man-up situations where I think we’re scoring about a third of our goals.”
Another Arroyo Grande graduate, Rebekah Hernandez, has benefited from Manuele’s strong play. She’s second on the team with 49 goals and is shooting nearly 63 percent from the field. Katie White has scored 45 times this season on 104 attacks, and the Morro Bay High alumnus leads the Cougars with 59 steals.
“She’s really kind of exploded onto the scene,” Schuler said. “… She’s really a very aggressive, quick player, and that’s helped a lot.”
Schuler also said Paso Robles High graduate Jessica Reeves and former Templeton High standout Megan Miller have consistently provided a spark off the bench.
Sophomore Sam Baker, an Arroyo Grande alumnus, has returned to the goalkeeper position, where she played throughout her prep career. In 14 games, Baker has allowed 105 goals and made a team-high 102 saves while contributing 14 steals.
“She extends our fast break a little bit because she’s got an arm that she can throw the length of the pool,” Schuler said. “So the kids know if they leave a little bit early, she’s going to get the ball to them.”
Cuesta travels to the TruWest Tournament this weekend in Long Beach and will return home for the last three matches of the regular season. The Cougars host Citrus in their final conference match at 4 p.m. Oct. 28 and will play Cal Poly in a nonconference game later that day.
The eight-team Western State Conference tournament is scheduled to begin Nov. 5 in Van Nuys.