Oakdale Girls Water Polo climbed its way to the top and has every intention of staying there
By JIM McCUE | Senior Contributor
After enough baby steps, you can eventually make a giant leap.
Since the Oakdale girls’ water polo program started 12 years ago, the players and coaches have worked to make small improvements in order to gradually become an established playoff contender. Those small steps finally became a giant leap for the Mustangs when they claimed the program’s first Sac-Joaquin Section title by dethroning Division II power Rio Americano-Sacramento.
“At first, we went for fifth in league, then third, and then to win the league,” coach Diane Kline said. “Finally, we made the playoffs and got further each year to the point where we reached the section final in 2011 and won it last year.”
Success bred a hunger for more victories and a realization that Oakdale water polo was no one-hit wonder. Returning the core group for that title team, the Mustangs understood they were just scratching the surface of what they could become.
“Last year, we were very young with lots of room to grow,” senior center Emily Stolken said. “The success that we experienced motivated the players because we knew that we could get even better.”
Oakdale has followed up its 2013 campaign — which included a 27-7 record along with the section title — with a 20-4 start in 2014 against bigger and better foes. The Mustangs have yet to lose to an SJS team, having compiled early-season victories over section stalwarts Rio Americano, Del Oro-Loomis and Division I-contender St. Francis-Sacramento.
The biggest step was still to come when Oakdale recently ventured into the deep end of the competition in the A Bracket of the Western States Tournament in Modesto.
Overcoming any intimidation or apprehension about facing the section’s best, Oakdale prevailed 7-4 over Davis and nearly claimed the prestigious tournament title. The Mustangs lost the championship match to Bay Area-power Miramonte-Orinda 12-11 in overtime.
“It was a good bonding experience for the team,” Stolken said of their Western State performance. “It was very communal, and a moment that really showed us what we have all worked so hard for. It was a big boost for our team morale and attitude.”
That attitude will benefit the Mustangs when they inevitably end up as the top seed in the Division II playoff field.
“We have always been the underdogs, including in the section final last year,” Stender said. “We are not used to being the team with the target on our back, and we tend to play better as an underdog.”
The continued success of the girls water polo program may never supplant football as the town’s favorite athletic pastime, but it certainly has caught the attention of locals as well as the broader water polo community.
Stender comes from a line of water polo talents. Her father, Alan Stender, was an accomplished player in high school and college before entering coaching. He is the former boys coach at Oakdale and is now co-coaches the girls with Kline in addition to coaching in the USA Olympic Development Program. Shelby’s older sister, Savannah, graduated in 2012, and was a member of the Mustangs’ squad that advanced to its first section final in November 2011.
Stender’s speed and play-making ability in the pool make her a dangerous complement to the steady presence of Stolken in the two-meter/center position. In the 2013 season, Stender led the team with 107 goals and 14 assists while Stolken added 103 goals for a rare duo of 100-goal scorers. That dual threat has only gotten better this year as opponents are forced to pick their poison between the powerful Stolken in the middle or cutting Stender on the outside.
Golding anchors a defense that has allowed an average of just 5.5 goals per game and allowed double digits to an opponent just twice (both in losses to Miramonte). As a sophomore, she shut down defending champion Rio Americano to record a 5-3 victory in the historic section final.
“Outside shooters stand no chance against her because she is very long and her leg strength is unbelievable,” Stender said. “She is also an excellent passer and has the capability to read exactly where to throw outlet passes to set up counter attacks.”
With a growing youth program and young talent ready to assume lead roles when today’s stars graduate, Oakdale has developed into a legitimate power.
“It’s nice to have the acknowledgement, and it’s a different vibe when we play the top teams in Northern California now,” Stender said. “I definitely hope to come home from college and still see the program competing for section titles as an established contender.”
Just another step.
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