UCSB’s Serela Kay had to wait a year to get her 99th water polo coaching victory last weekend. No. 100, however, took just a few hours more.
The Gauchos, who had last season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, hit the road to sweep San Diego State in a Saturday double-header to get their seventh-year coach to the century mark with a career record of 100-73.
“We were in high spirits just to be able to finally play a game for the first time in a year,” Kay said.
UCSB, ranked No. 9 in the preseason national poll, defeated the No. 17 Aztecs in a pair of thrillers: 10-9 and 5-4.
“We were two wins away from 100 last year, and we definitely had a good thing going,” Kay said. “It’s been exciting to add all the new faces and start back up this season.
“It’s definitely a challenge with all the adversity we’re facing with the pandemic and this new normal. But I know the team will end up being stronger because of it.”
Kay guided the Gauchos to a program-record 22 wins in 2019 and then started the 2020 season with a historic victory over her alma mater, No. 2 UCLA. It was UCSB’s first win over the Bruins since 1995.
She had been a four-year starter for the Bruins, graduating in 2000 with three NCAA championship rings. She’s coached the sport ever since, with assistant and associate head gigs at Princeton, Cal, then Princeton again, Maryland and Hawaii before UCSB made her a head coach in the summer of 2014.
Kay has also coached with the U.S. Senior Women’s program.
“It’s been a joy for me personally to be able to take what I have learned and the experiences I’ve had and bring that all to UCSB,” she said. “I envision this program to have a legacy in which the alumni graduate and come back to support and have a lot of pride in what they’ve helped build.”
Last year’s Gauchos defeated seven ranked teams before edging Cal State Northridge in overtime to open Big West Conference play when the coronavirus halted all NCAA competition.
Several of the stars from that 12-8 team are now gone, including All-Americans Sarah Snyder, their leading scorer with 38 goals, and goalkeeper Kenzi Snyder.
“We also lost Kate Coski, a San Marcos local (who was fourth in goals with 11),” Kay said. “Academically, it just fit better into their career plans to graduate and move on.”
“Nothing replaces experience, that’s for sure. We have a predominantly freshman and sophomore team now — most of our team is new.”
The lone senior is Mollie Simmons, who is one of the fastest swimmers in NCAA water polo. She won 49 of 52 sprints last season.
“She’s got some wheels, and she’s really good at getting into the lanes and playing great crash defense and double-teaming,” Kay said.
Sophomore Claire Kelly also returns as a top defender.
Other key returning players are junior Caitlyn Snyder, Sarah’s younger sister, who led last year’s team in assists with 16, and junior Amanda Legaspi, who was UCSB’s second-leading scorer with 18 goals. Legaspi scored four of the Gauchos’ five goals in Saturday’s second game against San Diego State.
Sophomore Courtney Heydorff sparked UCSB in the opener, scoring four of her team-high five goals in the second half.
“Courtney had a breakout game, and Amanda really picked it up in the second game,” Kay said. “Versatility is our strength. With the little time we’ve had training together — it’s literally been only two weeks — it’s really fun to see the group playing with each other and reading each other.
“I think the team chemistry will get even better with time. I think that’s our strength.”
Two freshmen — Savannah Burns and Leigh Lyton — scored their first goals as Gauchos last weekend. Sophomores Sarah Owns and Drew Halvorson also found the net.
Madison Button, a junior transfer from Riverside City College, also made a successful debut.
“Those were her first two Division 1 collegiate games and I’m definitely proud of her performance,” Kay said. “She has some big shoes to fill with Kenzi Snyder gone.
“Kenzi is actually still in town, coaching at San Marcos. I’m excited she’s still around and in the coaching field.”
The road gets tougher for the Gauchos when they travel to No. 8 Cal on Saturday. They also have a date at No. 1 USC on March 13 before opening a modified Big West Conference schedule which includes the likes of No. 5 UC Irvine and No. 7 Hawaii.
“I’m excited for the future,” Kay said. “I know this team will go through some ups and downs, and that’s always a part of it.
“Going up to Cal will be tough, but it’s important for this team that we just get out there and get after it and have a nothing-to-lose mentality.”