San Marcos High girls water polo needed a quick fix last year when star goalkeeper Riley Christian suffered a season-ending injury.
But they did have a quick learner to replace her in Zosia Amberger.
Amberger, whose play helped the Royals reach the semifinals of last year’s CIF-Southern Section Division 1 championships, has been honored by the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table as this year’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year from San Marcos.
“At the beginning, she was maybe a little bit more of a learner,” coach Chuckie Roth said, “but she became an asset to our team, and we were able to change the things we did because of what she did in the cage.
“She’s an amazing young girl in and out of the classroom — a more amazing person and leader to our team. She’s an active participant in everything she does.”
And the senior goalie is involved in plenty of activities.
Amberger, the daughter of Jerry Amberger and Natasha Chamberlain, has led San Marcos to Channel League championships in both swimming and water polo. Her versatility took her to second-place finishes in her age group at both the 2017 Santa Barbara Triathlon and the 2019 Malibu Triathlon.
She is involved in San Marcos’ Accelerated Academic Program for Leadership and Enrichment Academy, serving as its community drives chairperson. She’s also the marketing chairperson for the campus’ Habitat for Humanity Club.
She volunteers for the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation’s Holiday Party Drive and as an exhibit interpreter and science communication liaison for the Santa Barbara Sea Center.
Amberger has earned a grade-point average of 4.84 in such Advanced Placement courses as literature, physics, government, macroeconomics, and calculus-based physics. She’s won the California Seal of Biliteracy as well as academic honors from both the National Honor Society and the California Interscholastic Federation. She is also a two-time USA Water Polo Academic All-American
Soccer was her main sport until achy knees drew her toward the aquatic sports in which her younger sister, Mia, was participating.
“I started playing water polo in seventh and eighth grades, and it was kind of for fun,” Amberger said. “When I started high school, I didn’t know anybody on the team because I didn’t play club, and I wasn’t sure what was going on.
“But all the seniors were super-nice my freshman year. They were really welcoming. They brought me in and kind of showed me what the program and water polo were all about. I fell in love with it, and it made me want to work harder each year.”
She established herself as a sophomore and MVP of the junior varsity swim team when she qualified for the varsity’s CIF-SS Division 2 Championships. She was part of a San Marcos relay team that placed sixth in the 200 medley relay.
It was the coming-out party for someone that Roth first saw “walk onto the pool deck as a timid, young graduate of the eighth grade… I was wondering where she was going to sit in this program.”
“I’ve coached at San Marcos for 17 years,” Roth continued, “and I’d say she has become one of the best stories yet.
“Last year, she had a good shot at becoming a league champion (in swimming). But COVID hit and we didn’t have that opportunity.”
Amberger earned awards in water polo for best defensive player in 2019 and for most improved player last season.
“My freshman year, we had a really good goalie, Sophie Trumbull,” she said. “Watching her, she was just amazing.”
Roth’s tutelage also accelerated her development.
“He is an amazing coach,” Amberger said. “He’s really dedicated and he’ll take time out of his day for you, going to tournaments with us on Monday nights and driving us back at like 12 at night.
“It makes you really want to work hard for him. That’s what really brings our team up — everybody working for each other.”
That included the injured Christian, who’s now playing for Fresno State.
“She really stepped up and coached me at games, at practices, and I wouldn’t be where I was without her having my back the whole time,” Amberger said. “She was really amazing last year even though she couldn’t play. She stuck around and really helped me out.”
She was named to the all-tournament team at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, an event that attracts Southern California’s top teams.
Amberger was also the standard bearer of an aquatics program that produced CIF-SS Academic Team Championships in swimming in 2018-19 and water polo in 2019-20. She plans to continue playing water polo next year at Pomona College.
“Our whole team is pretty smart,” she said. “We can talk about things and act upon them quickly. A play can be drawn up quickly and we’ll understand it.
“That always helps, just being around these really amazing young women who are all super-brilliant, both in the water and out of the water. It’s fun being in classes with them, working on stuff together, and then we come to practice and work some more together.”