KAATSU Strong – Los Alamitos’ Run To The JO Championship Game

The USA Water Polo Junior Olympics is the largest water polo tournament in the world. The categories include 10U, 12U, 14U, 16U, and 18U where the crème de la crème of the more than 50,000 players representing more than 500 USA Water Polo clubs are crowned national champions.

All of the USA Olympic team members participate in this tournament on their road to the Olympic Games. The major clubs, year after year, include SOCAL Water Polo FoundationSET Water Polo ClubLamorinda Water Polo ClubRose Bowl Water Polo Club, Santa Barbara 805 Water Polo Club, 680 Drivers Water Polo FoundationSan Diego Shores Water Polo Club, and the Stanford Water Polo Club. These are large “super clubs” that attract the top water polo talent from many different high schools in their local area and beyond.

This year, there was one exception to the traditional dominance by the super clubs: the 18U girls of the Los Alamitos Water Polo Foundation.

The Los Alamitos players – with one exception – had grown up together in the sport and long represented their high school, Los Alamitos, in all club tournaments and games for years. Their rise in 2023 was reminiscent of the Kevin Costner movie McFarland where an unlikely team of cross country runners won the 1987 California state championships, upsetting major schools with a history of winning along the way.

Los Al’s road to the championship game at the 2023 USA Water Polo Junior Olympics was due to their dedication, teamwork, and practice intensity. Their team defense was spectacular, anchored by UCLA recruit, goalie Joey Niz. How each field player continuously moved herself to be in the optimal position to cut off passes and shots appears seamless to the uninitiated. But to the collective mind of the six field players, their defense made sense – and kept all the super teams to low scores.

Backing up Niz was Livvie Ouellette, Isabel Valaika, Cici DeLuca, Ashley Greger, and Olivia Slavens. The girls hard work and passion for the sport was most evident during the COVID pandemic period. When their school was closed and they were prevented from practicing in their school pool and every other pool in their local area, they took to the Pacific Ocean.

They went to the ocean, starting in March 2020, every day, rain or shine.

On days when the ocean was cold, they swam together in a group close to shore. On days when the sun was out, they swam around the Seal Beach Pier. Every day, they walked, sprinted, did dryland exercises on the soft sand, and then jumped in the water to swim back and forth along the same stretch that the famed record-setting channel swimmers Lynne Cox and Penny Dean, once trained. After their long-distance swims and short sprints, they would pass balls in the surf and use the pylons of the pier as shooting targets.

Once the pandemic was over and the quarantines were lifted, the girls were able to get back into the school’s new 50m outdoor pool. Day after day, they practiced with their KAATSU Aqua Bands. It was a unique training experience that Coach Dave Carlson enabled his team. They warmed up with their Aqua Bands; they did short swim sets with their bands; they did leg work (i.e., eggbeater drills), and shooting drills with the bands either around their upper arm or upper leg.

Carlson explains, “We wanted the girls to experience the same training experience as Olympians across many sports and professional athletes in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and MLS benefit from and enjoy. We did not have the large rosters as the other top clubs in USA Water Polo; we had to work with a limited number of players. So we needed them to be in better shape than their opponents. While the super clubs were able to continuously substitute a number of players in and out throughout the game, our girls had to go end-to-end, game after game, without rest. KAATSU enabled the girls to compete at the highest level while maintaining an intensity of both offense and especially on defense.”

Water polo players typically carry their swimsuit, caps, and goggles everywhere. The Los Al team was known for one more piece of equipment – both at games and practices. Carlson explained, “The girls have not gone a single practice or game over the last year without using their KAATSU Aqua Bands. Whenever someone had an injury, they would take the KAATSU equipment home with them to speed up the healing process.

The girls warmed down with the KAATSU Aqua Bands after every game for recovery – an important element of their overall performance over a 4-day, 8-game tournament.

Carlson continued, “Cici and Olivia have used the KAATSU equipment – even during the games. They did the KAATSU Cycle protocol on their legs during halftime of a few big games during the high school season. During the summer at JO’s, they did the KAATSU Cycles on their legs in between games. Isabel and Livvie sometimes did the Cycle sets on their arms for recovery in between games.”

Before the eight games in four days, the small band of Los Al girls all walked in the JO venues together with their bands and did a warm-up. “The bands allow the arterial blood flow to continue unimpeded in their limbs, but the venous return was modified. So, in a very short amount of time, the capillaries of their limbs would get engorged with blood and their bodies would be ready to play intensely. Then, after the games, they put on the bands again. This time, to help remove the lactate that had built up during the games, as quickly as possible,” explained Carlson.

Los Al quickly marched through the first two days of the tournament, winning four games in quick succession. Carlson said after Day 2, “We beat 805 who I think had the best roster in the tournament. It was a biggest 18U win in Los Al history ever at JO’s. It was 4-4 at the end of regulation in a defensive clinic. We won 5-4 in a shootout.”

The Los Al players were in great shape; their stamina was unprecedented. Carlson never subbed in the 805 game and only used one substitution during both the semifinal and final games.

On the third day during the quarterfinals came their first major obstacle: SET, a club headed by a two-time Olympic gold medalist that has developed numerous NCAA champions and Olympians over the years. SET was seeded number one and was one of the heavy favorites in the tournament. The game was tight the entire way, and Los Al had their chances to win, but SET ultimately prevailed 8-7.

The Los Al girls were disappointed, but the tournament enabled a team with one loss to continue onto the medal round, if they continued to win all their following games. While SET was able to move directly into the semifinal round, Los Al had to go through the back door in the tournament seedings.

They took care of business by beating Long Beach Water Polo Association in an evening game to get into the semifinals. Los Al found itself on day four of the tournament, facing three other super clubs: SET, Lamorinda, and SOCAL. All three represented the historic powerhouses of American water polo, providing a well-used pipeline to the USA Olympic team.

While SET beat SoCal to earn its way into the final, most pundits and college coaches had pegged Lamorinda as the most talented team and most likely to stand on top of the podium. Lamorinda had a large roster of top NCAA Division I recruits, coached by former USA Olympic coach Guy Baker. It was almost a foregone conclusion that SET would face Lamorinda in the final.

But the self-confident group at Los Al had other plans.

They jumped out to the first goal and extended their lead quarter by quarter. Their vaulted defense held strong throughout the first three quarters. Los Al led Lamorinda 2-1 after the first quarter, 4-2 at half, and 5-3 going into the fourth quarter. The fans in the stands and coaches on the pool deck were shocked. By the middle of the fourth quarter, Los Al was holding onto a 7-3 lead. Lamorinda closed towards the end of the game, but a highly unusual full-court goal by Niz proved to be the winning goal in a 8-7 victory. Carlson said, “We ended up being the only team to beat Lamorinda during the tournament.”

Everyone expected Lamorinda to win the gold medal after beating the SOCAL juggernaut by a score of 12-7 in the quarterfinals. They beat SoCal again in the third place game.

The small band of girls, who had trained in the cold Pacific and who practiced with KAATSU for years, had finally earned an unexpected berth in the finals of the largest water polo tournament in the world. Their stamina and strength had taken them to the top of the highly competitive 18U division and they would play in the featured last game of the tournament.

But SET proved to be a tough opponent, ultimately winning a close 8-7 game that came down to the last offensive possession. Carlson summed up the title game, their improbable JO run, and their career at Los Alamitos, “I am so proud of these girls.”

Joey Niz and Olivia Ouellette – who will be incoming freshmen teammates at UCLA next season – were honored as two of the seven First-team All-Americans while Olivia Slavens and Cici DeLuca were selected as two of the seven Second-team All Americans.

© 2023 Daily News of Open Water Swimming

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