Miramonte Girls Water Polo Embraced The Challenge Of Getting A New Coach A Week Before The Season — And Promptly Bolted To A 12-0 Start •
Exceptional describes the season thus far for Miramonte girls water polo. Most impressive for one of the region’s best programs, despite less than ideal circumstances.
Through early October the Matadors are undefeated at 12-0, ranked second in the state by MaxPreps.com and chock full of talented players fully capable of playing at the next level.
It’s quite a feat for a team whose new coach didn’t come aboard until a week before the first practice. And that new coach had to scramble to compile a full schedule.
Fortunately for the Matadors, that new coach is John Roemer, who has a broad resume and connections throughout the water polo world. Thus he was able to rapidly put together a top-tier schedule.
A seamless transition? Not exactly.
“It took me two weeks to learn everybody’s name,” Roemer said.
His new players initially thought of him as that club coach who is Jewel Roemer’s dad.
“They all do,” he chuckled.
For good reason. Now starring at Stanford and a member of the senior national team, Jewel had a phenomenal run at Acalanes-Lafayette before graduating in 2020.
It’s been a whirlwind for the Matadors girls, as with any team in a high school sports world trying to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet they have been excelling in spite of obstacles.
First there was the shortened spring season with no chance for playoffs, after which coach Lance Morrison resigned. They switched gears to a full fall season with a new coach. Impressively, they haven’t lost a match in the 2021 calendar year.
“It was especially hard for last year’s captains because that was at the height of it,” said Carly Hoskins, one of three senior co-captains this season. “But it puts a lot of responsibility on us to revive all the traditions and keep the spirit alive and keep the good vibe of Mats polo.”
It’s a merger of elements of great water polo traditions.
As a collegiate player, Roemer learned from one of water polo’s greatest minds, legendary Cal coach Pete Cutino, one of many mentors. “Pete Cutino, Steve Heaston, Bill Brown … the best,” Roemer said.
Roemer had a nice run at Diablo Valley College, coaching the women for three years and the men for eight, with the men winning the conference undefeated each year. After relocating back to the Bay Area from Santa Barbara, Roemer has been with the 680 Drivers Water Polo Association club program for five years, coaching the 18-under females, often against many of his current charges at Miramonte. It’s his first high school coaching job since a successful one-year stint at College Park in the mid 2000s.
Miramonte is steeped in tradition, establishing itself from the onset of girls water polo as an official high school sport, thanks to the efforts of legendary Mats water polo coach — Bill Brown — to get the program going. The Matadors won the first two North Coast Section girls titles in 1995-96, with superstar-in-the-making Heather Petri, who went to play at Cal and then became a four-time Olympian. The Matadors have won five NCS titles to date, most recently the Division I championship in 2017.
In some ways this was an unlikely pairing, not just that it was a recent Acalanes sports dad coming over to rival Miramonte.
“I wasn’t sure they were going to hire me because I am the 680 club coach,” Roemer said. “These girls are either Lamorinda (Water Polo) or Diablo (Alliance). Ninety percent of them are Lamorinda.”
Despite coming from different spheres, things are going well. Roemer put together a demanding schedule on the fly and the Matadors have been more than up to the task. That has included a 10-7 overtime victory over 16-time Sac-Joaquin Section champion Davis on Oct. 2 and a hard-fought 7-6 win over Central Coast Section power Soquel on Sept. 18. They have won the Amanda McDonald Tournament at Menlo School-Atherton and the Acalanes Invitational. Coming up is the NorCal Invitational in late October, featuring the region’s top 16 teams. Also there’s a Diablo Athletic League match on Oct. 6 against Acalanes, the same school that beat Miramonte in the most recent NCS Open Division final in 2019.
“At least we got a semi-season last year, but this year is truly a delight,” senior Shannon Murphy said. “We’re just excited to see what the future holds and what we can accomplish this season.”
Through Roemer’s vast experience, his connection with college coaches and familiarity with the recruiting process are invaluable. Due to COVID-19, the recruiting waters are even more choppy.
With the NCAA allowing an additional year of eligibility to current collegiate players due to the pandemic, it’s created a scenario where there are few if any scholarships open to high school seniors. It’s made the talented crew of seniors at Miramonte anxious.
“The colleges are not recruiting anybody,” Roemer explained. “Fifth-year people coming back who had eligibility. So it’s like, ‘I have all these people, I don’t need to recruit anybody.’ Crazy. … This is a really bad situation for these girls heading out of high school.”
The Matadors girls kept in contact throughout the various stoppages of workouts during the pandemic and in the wait for a new coach to be hired, as changes in the school administration led to the process being longer.
“During COVID we were still doing Zooms and workouts,” senior goalkeeper Lindsay Lucas said. “For Miramonte, since we could not have summer “green team” as we call it, since we didn’t have a coach, we had a pool party and stuff like that just to keep each other together and stay in contact. And we did all of our training to stay in shape.”
Roemer was getting ready for a flight to Southern California to coach 680 in the Junior Olympics when he got the call from Miramonte for an interview.
“I said no, I am flying to JOs, I am about to get on an airplane at 1 p.m.” he said. “‘Can you come in at 10?’ I said sure.”
Without a coach, schedules had not been fully filled out in advance as in usual times.
“I get here and ‘here’s the schedule’ …. Six games. Just league,” Roemer said. “We are allowed 24 contacts, right now we have 20. I was able to scrounge up 14 via basically tournaments.”
Though happening at warp speed, everything fell into place quickly.
“He couldn’t talk to us a day before the season started,” Murphy said. “So it was definitely a little bit abrupt. But he’s such a great coach it wasn’t a hard transition at all.”
There was a pivotal meeting that day before the first practice with Roemer and captains Lucas, Murphy and Hoskins.
First Roemer described his philosophy and approach to coaching.
“And then we were giving him our side of the story which is “here’s our traditions, here’s our culture, this is what we need to keep in place,” Hoskins said. “This is what we are open to, but these things have to stay. Which he did a good job of accepting and he was really open about.”
That culture’s foundation is an extraordinary support system from team parents.
“There’s so much support from parents, it’s incredible,” Roemer exclaimed. “Every practice parents show up with a table full of food. That’s the support they get. We have all the equipment we need. That’s what it’s about and I love it. It gives me time just to coach.”
Experience and depth have been valuable for the Matadors. Roemer has utilized the Golden State Warriors’ motto, strength in numbers. The Mats can constantly sub groups in and not lose a beat from their deep roster of 20 players.
“Every single person on our team is extremely talented,” Hoskins said. “We have a very deep bench. Every group is just as good as the last and that definitely adds to it but we have been playing together, mostly everyone, since we were 12-13 years old.”
Contributions come throughout the roster. Roemer cites Dania Innis and Megan McAninch offensively and defenders Ally Smith and Allie Lurie as examples of excelling in the new approach.
Roemer is a proponent of leg-driven water polo, and is trying to invoke a different mindset with constant group substitutions.
“We want them to play as hard as they can for 2-3 minutes and not at 80 percent for long periods of time,” he said. “Water polo is not a swim meet. It’s a series of explosive movements.”
The Matadors are showing how to be explosive, even under challenging circumstances.