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Acalanes Girls Water Polo | 2019-20 NorCal Team Of The Year

Acalanes girls water polo, Team of the Year, oral history

Acalanes was voted the SportStars' 2019-20 NorCal Team of the Year in an August poll.

Acalanes Girls Water Polo Players, Coaches Provide Oral History Insight Into Its Achievement Of A Second Straight Perfect Season •

To fully appreciate the perfect 27-0 season that led to the Acalanes girls water polo team becoming our 2019-20 NorCal Team of the Year, one needs to go even further back. 

Back to the 2018 season — when they also finished 27-0, though it wasn’t quite on their terms.

California’s wildfire season forced havoc on the end of the fall sports calendar and led to the cancellation of CIF’s Northern Regional Championship tournament. Acalanes was able to secure its North Coast Section title after a long delay, but it was denied from making the full statement it wanted to. 

“We felt like we were the best team out there,” Dons coach Misha Buchel said.

Though Acalanes missed out on one NorCal title that season, it did win Sacred Heart Prep-Atherton’s 16-team NorCal Invitational in late October of 2018. The way in which they accomplished it set a tone for the next 13 months. 

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The 2019-20 Acalanes girls water polo team huddles after a mid-September match. (Chace Bryson photo)

“We won the final without our goalie, who was out with a concussion,” Buchel said. “We literally didn’t have a backup goalie, and we were playing Leland with a pair of sisters who could score from anywhere. And we still won that game 15-14.

“What that told us at that time was the dynamics of this group was unique. It didn’t matter what was going against us, referees, bad luck, or whatever. We just had this will.”

That fortitude was on display from preseason goal-setting chats to the team’s dominant finish at the 2019 CIF NorCal final. When SportStars Magazine recently held an online vote to name our 2019-20 NorCal Team of the Year, the Dons drew more than 50 percent of the vote among five other finalists.

“The joke in our group chat was that we weren’t going to lose now,” Buchel said. 

Join us in an oral history-style journey through the team’s stellar season. 


BUCHEL: We had three seniors that graduated from that 2018 season who had played quite a bit, but basically we had brought everyone else back. Going into the season, we felt like we had faced pretty much everything we could face with this core group, and were ready to go through it again. 

AVA DONLEAVY (Goalkeeper/Class Of 2021): When we got to the pool deck, we were super ready to be back with each other and get to work. We just wanted to try and keep that going. We started setting out a plan on how we would handle our opponents and work together in an effective way.

MARY BETH HEFFELFINGER (Wing/2020): I remember it was a lot easier because we hadn’t added a lot. We all knew each other well already. We understood how each other played and that helped us a lot.

CLAIRE ROWELL (Center/2021): In a sport where you don’t play a ton of teams, you have a couple teams you know from the beginning that are going to be the hard games. We were confident early on that we could win those games when we really needed to.  

DONLEAVY: There was definitely a sense of confidence and pride coming off of that undefeated season. But we couldn’t let that overshadow our need to continue working. If we were overly confident it would end up hurting us in the long run. The only team that could hurt us was ourselves.

BUCHEL: I had done some research in the offseason and found that no team in NorCal history had gone undefeated in back-to-back seasons. Even back to the Maggie Steffens teams (at Monte Vista-Danville). We could be the first. So that was a goal that we took on to keep everyone focused.

DONLEAVY: The chemistry was so strong too. We have a Lake Tahoe retreat that we take at the beginning of each season. This year we decided to go to a thrift store and buy the most random outfits. They were all over the place and absolutely crazy. We came back and choreographed a dance routine in the outfits, and then decided to go perform it down at the docks. On the walk back, we had so many cars slowing down and looking at us. We didn’t care what anyone else thought. We were just having so much fun with each other.

The team takes a photo together in the midst of its Lake Tahoe retreat fun. (Ava Donleavy photo)

FIRST MONTH (September 2019)

BUCHEL: We’d started previous seasons without Jewel (Roemer) due to her Junior Worlds Team USA commitments, and were doing so again. But really that just gave us an opportunity to force everyone to expand their role. However, Claire Rowell also had an injury, which left us pretty short handed in the early part of the season. To escape (those first two weeks) without taking a loss really built that confidence.

ROWELL: Even though I wasn’t playing, one thing I learned was that I could trust my team even when I wasn’t in the pool. We learned what all of us can do. Those couple weeks, I was putting all my trust in my team to keep our undefeated record up, and they did.

HEFFELFINGER: It was an adjustment, but to continue to win without them was really important for us. It really helped our team in the long run.

JEWEL ROEMER (Wing/2020): I actually really enjoyed rejoining them (in a 14-1 win over Monte Vista on Sept. 18). A lot of the girls on the team are some of my best friends. Having that connection makes it much more enjoyable. I tried really hard to apply what I learned with the national team at Acalanes. I tried to teach some of the girls a few things along the way.

Jewel Roemer is all smiles in the water after rejoining her Acalanes water polo teammates in mid-September. (Chace Bryson photo)

BUCHEL: It starts with Jewell. Her physical talent is only exceeded by her understanding of the game and her unselfishness. My teams have gone up against other players who are super talented, but just don’t put the same amount of trust in their teammates.

ROEMER: Back in high school games, I feel it was definitely easier to compete. I felt like I could take over a lot more and also set up my teammates better by drawing people to me. Overall, it was just very comforting to come back to them. It’s just a fun and inclusive environment.


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THE FOILS (October 2019)

BUCHEL: Going into the season, we viewed two teams as our biggest threats: Sacred Heart Prep (Atherton) and Miramonte (Orinda). 

ROWELL: Miramonte. We knew all the girls on their team. They’re part of our district. Each meeting was a big meeting.

BUCHEL: Even though Sacred Heart was widely considered the second best team out there, and had beaten everybody but us, they were a favorable matchup for us. Miramonte had the recipe, though.  

ROEMER: Miramonte has championship history, and I think that helps a lot. They are super fast and super aggressive. Our team isn’t used to playing such a quick team. We are usually faster than our opponents. We had to match the intensity that they brought.

ROWELL: We played them that first time (on Oct. 2), and I think we barely won (6-4). Their goalie played an amazing game and our shots just weren’t going in. They’re also a very young team, and they had a super deep bench and would use big sub groups, which we don’t do. Playing a team like that can get really tiring. It can really be a grind. 

LANCE MORRISON (Miramonte coach): That first match we had an idea of what to expect. We knew about Jewel and a few other key personnel. We knew what they wanted to do and had a game plan against that. That first match we also got some of our shots to go in too. You have to try and attack them. It’s not just about defending them.

DONLEAVY: It was definitely a tough game. They are such a challenge — mentally and physically. They have a bunch of really strong players that we might have blown off a bit. We were probably overconfident. I know I got scored on a few times and I remember being embarrassed by it. I’m not even going to lie, I remember thinking ‘What am I doing?!’

Junior goalkeeper Ava Donleavy extends to make a save in a regular season match with Monte Vista-Danville. (Chace Bryson photo)

HEFFELFINGER: We definitely checked ourselves during that game, and reminded each other that (Miramonte) was a really good team and we had to raise our level of play to beat them.

BUCHEL: A few days (after the Miramonte win), we played Sacred Heart Prep for the second time that season. I wasn’t there. My cousin is an actress in Moscow and was in (San Francisco) for a one-night performance. I was getting water polo updates throughout — it was an agonizing moment. I didn’t want the streak to end while I was sitting in the Sunset District watching a play in Russian. 

ROEMER: With Sacred Heart, they have some really fast girls and outside threats. All around they just have solid players. We tried to shut down the main girls and let the rest beat us. That worked most of the time but they would change up their play a lot.

BUCHEL: We played them in the final of their own NorCal Invitational at the end of the regular season. We raced out to a lead and we couldn’t seal it. To their credit they came all the way back and had a chance to tie it. We had the hostile crowd, their pool, nothing is going right and yet we still ground out the result. I think those last couple of games cemented things for us. We were ready.


DONLEAVY: That was one of my favorite games of the season. NCS. Big game. What we’ve been working for. It was really just incredible. We started the game and it was just crazy.

HEFFELFINGER: I remember it was really high emotion. A lot of our high school came. The stands were full and loud. Very overwhelming. You had to definitely kind of focus on what was happening in the game because everything was going on around you.

Mary Beth Heffelfinger warms up prior to a mid-season match. (Chace Bryson photo)

DONLEAVY: I try to totally disregard all that extra noise and home in on what I need to do for each game. But I remember when that game started, I got scored on right off the bat. 

BUCHEL: It was really a similar game to that first one against them. They were definitely good enough on the right day to beat us. They got the first goal on us, but that game was very typical of us: You might get us early on, have a good game plan against us, but the thing about our team in this run is it’s impossible for me to conceive that I’ll ever have a smarter team. The players would recognize those plans organically, with Jewel as the leader, and we’d slowly take away what you want to do to attack us. 

MORRISON: One of the greatest things about Jewel — and I’ve watched a lot of game film on her — she spends an incredible amount of effort doing the little things. She never turns her brain off. She’s constantly scanning and constantly moving.

ROEMER: It’s really hard beating a team three times in a row. Especially good teams. We really just tried to stick to our game plan and play how we knew we could play. Everything would figure itself out.

MORRISON: It was a pleasure to play them. The losses were painful, but they were good, clean, hard fought matches. Any time you can get the best out of both teams, it’s hard to be too upset.

The Acalanes girls water polo team takes a photo with its 2019 NCS championship banner and plaque. (Tori Heffelfinger photo)


ROEMER: By the final game of the NorCal tournament, we and Sacred Heart knew each other so much. We knew what each person would do, and what the game plans were, and it was simply going to be who fought hardest and who wanted it the most.

DONLEAVY: When we got into the pool, we just had this sense of belonging and happiness to be there.

ROWELL: We weren’t at home and we couldn’t build off the emotion that much. It was in this giant pool, and it was really cool, but I remember we came out slowly in the first quarter.

BUCHEL: It was clear they had drawn up some plays to attack us. Jewel just happened to be in the right place both times. She just smothered both shots with a coupe of shot blocks. They drew up the plays, executed them perfectly, and they couldn’t even get the shot on frame. Jewel was everywhere in that game.

JAMIE FRANK (Sacred Heart Prep coach, to the San Mateo Daily Journal):  She’s a great player. She’s a great cog in a really strong machine.

BUCHEL: The last couple minutes of the second quarter led to Brooke Westphal’s buzzer-beater to make it 6-1 at half. That was the crusher. 

ROEMER: That’s the one thing I remember the most. We came into that (halftime) huddle and the feeling was like fire. We had so much energy. It really led into that third quarter. We just came out and there was no stopping us. I remember saying to myself, ‘Ok, this is where we end it. Right now.’ 

The Dons celebrate in the Independence High School-San Jose pool after winning the CIF NorCal title. (Paula Carter photo)

BUCHEL: At that point we were so close to the goal we set out for us that they weren’t going to let it slip. 

ROWELL: We were not going in thinking we were going to beat them by eight. We played so well together, it just happened. We’d been preparing that whole season for that one game, against Sacred Heart in the finals. Thankfully, we put it all together.


DONLEAVY: That was just a huge sense of pride. It’s such an honor to receive. It’s a great sense of how much we all worked together. We were able to achieve everything together as a team, and it feels incredible and amazing.

ROEMER: I think it’s amazing because water polo doesn’t get a lot of credit. To be able to win an all-sport, all-gender Team of the Year award is amazing, and it’s great for the sport.

ROWELL: I’ve never been on a team closer than we were. I’m always laughing with this team. It was just so fun.


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