Karly Frangieh has been an unstoppable force at times this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

By earning a spot in the Central Coast Section Open Division playoff tournament, the Los Gatos High girls water polo team has proved it’s one of the very elite programs in the area. 

The No. 5 seed Wildcats (25-2) play No. 4 St. Francis (16-9) Saturday at 10am at Bellarmine in an opening round contest. Los Gatos earned the Open Division berth by virtue of winning the ultra-tough Santa Clara Valley League’s De Anza Division, nearly running the table save for a loss to Castilleja which it later avenged in the regular-season before winning the league playoffs on Oct. 30 at its home pool.  

It marked the first time in 12 or 13 years since Los Gatos High last hosted the league water polo playoff tournament, and Wildcats coach Don Appleton was absolutely ecstatic. 

“Everyone hates playing at our little pool over here,” he said. “There’s not a lot of deck space and it’s a regulation-size pool, but the space is a little more narrow than most pool areas.”

The league tournament usually rotates to a different school every year, but Los Gatos had been skipped from its turn at least once or twice in the last decade. Not this time. 

“Absolutely not, you’re keeping on rotation,” Appleton said, quoting the words of the SCVAL commissioner who told everyone in the preseason meeting that Los Gatos High would be the league playoff tournament host this year. “I love our pool, but I also know it’s not the easiest place for other teams to play. The bleachers are really close to the pool deck, it’s crowded, it’s loud, and it’s a tough place to come and win when we fill the house.”

A 10-5 win over Castilleja—which handed Los Gatos its only loss in league play—in the De Anza Division playoff championship marked the seventh title under Appleton’s coaching tenure which also includes a CCS championship. 

“The league title is great and a CCS title would be icing on the cake,” Appleton said. 

The Wildcats’ latest victory was all the more meaningful because many of the current players have vivid memories of watching the team when they were in middle school. Players like sophomore Karissa Elliott, who led the team with three steals in the championship match and along with Julia Ernsting and Mackenzie Lindholm are considered to be the “unsung heroes” on the team, Appleton said. 

Said Elliott: “I would go to the Los Gatos league games and remember watching them beat Gunn a few years ago. It was exciting knowing I played the sport and might have a chance to play for the team as well.”

A freshman, Ernsting is playing beyond her years and had two goals in the title match, and Lindholm, a senior, excels as a passer and defender. 

“They all do a lot of work away from the ball and are really good at doing things that don’t show up on the stat sheet but are weight in gold,” Appleton said. 

The Wildcats took the suspense out early in the title contest, scoring three times in the first quarter and adding one more to go into halftime with a 4-0 lead. That pretty much amounts to be insurmountable because Los Gatos’ strength lies in its defense. 

“The first period we were all locked in and focused,” Elliott said. “We scored within the first 30 seconds of the game—I think it was Karly (Frangieh)—which really got us off to a good start. We were so prepared for that moment.”

Even though Karly Frangieh is the team’s leading goal scorer, several players have major impacts whenever the Wildcats win. Dominating Castielleja was a perfect example, as six other players scored goals, including Zoe Frangieh, Ernsting, Lindholm, Lily Van Putten, Maily Isaacs and Abby Lockman. 

The goalie combination of Jackie King (six blocks, one assist) and Lucy Holland was dynamite yet again, as Holland had eight blocks, including one on a 5-meter penalty shot. 

“We were all so happy and proud of ourselves, especially because we had come so far and grown so much from the start of the season,” Elliott said. 

Even before the team’s impressive win over Castilleja, Appleton was extremely proud of the players after their 14-7 victory over Harker in the semifinals. 

“I could not be more happy with the way they played that game,” he said. “The girls looked really sharp, and they’re more ready mentally for the game than they are physically ready for the game. In the last couple of games before this, we’ve had some mistakes that only a few weeks ago might have put us in panic mode. But instead of getting in panic mode, they’re now able to stick to the game plan and do the things in practice instead of doing things on their own. Being mentally aware and focused comes from being exposed to all kinds of situations and conditions and now knowing how to get out of them. They used to have frustrated faces when things went wrong; I think when we play happy, we’re tough to beat.”

The Frangieh sisters have been prolific scorers, especially Karly, who can have a six-goal game on a moment’s notice. A championship level team needs players like those who can put the ball in the cage. They also need players like Elliott who know their roles and do them well. 

“I’m more of a defensive player,” Elliott said. “Maybe the one who makes the assist, the one helping around. I understand even if I do make a mistake, one of my teammates will be there to help.”

Elliott plays hole-set defense at times and said there’s no better feeling if she can unroot players from their specific area.

“It’s kind of a fun test to see how hard I can work my legs to get someone in the wrong position,” she said.  

Defense has been the team’s calling card and at different points in the season the players have experienced tremendous growth that has resulted in peak performances. Elliott said when the team is communicating and providing help defense, things tend to go well.

Karissa Elliott has been tough defensively while distributing the ball well. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Mackenzie Lindholm scored a goal in the SCVAL De Anza Division playoff title match. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Sports reporter Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]

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