Sports is all about chasing goals and, naturally, some teams have loftier goals than others. For Oakdale High School’s girls water polo team, its goal is always the loftiest: win a Sac-Joaquin Section championship.
After years of coming up just short, the Mustangs finally captured the prize last season when they beat Rio Americano of Sacramento, the then-reigning champion which had won 10 of the previous 11 titles, including nine in a row from 2002-10.
This season, Oakdale is the team being chased.
“Well, I wouldn’t say we feel like we have a target on our back,” Oakdale coach Diane Kline said. “At this point, we haven’t played any Division II teams.”
That’s about to change because on Tuesday the Mustangs will take on, for the first time this season, a team they could meet in the postseason.
Um, make that a team they’re likely to meet in the postseason.
Rio Americano will visit the Oakdale High pool for a 4 p.m. rematch of the last two D-II championship matches. Rio won the 2012 final 7-3, and Oakdale got it last year with a 5-3 victory in Roseville.
“We’re ready for this game,” said senior Shelby Stender, The Bee’s two-time Player of the Year. “With that said, we’re worried about it being like our preseason game with them last year, which wasn’t close (Rio Americano won 11-5).
“We haven’t seen them play yet, but it looks like they’ve graduated more players than we did.”
Oakdale graduated two starters off last year’s team in Alek Courtney and Hannah Hanko, and its first sub off the bench in Ronda Vanderburg.
Alida McKeon has taken over for Hanko as the center defender, and junior Kate Allen has filled Courtney’s role of causing turnovers and getting steals, according to Kline. In addition to Stender, senior Emily Stolken and goalie Caitlin Golding return to the starting lineup.
Rio Americano has a new coach in Rachel Ruano, and the Raiders are off to a 3-2 start. Usually, this nonleague encounter takes place in the capital. But Rio is making the 90-minute trip south this season.
“A pool is a pool, but there’s a sense of comfort you get from playing at home,” Stender said. “I’m sure they’ll be gunning for us.”
The Mustangs (5-2) have played two D-I teams from the Sac-Joaquin Section – Tokay and Lodi – and five others from the Fresno area at the Central Valley Showdown in Fresno, where they finished sixth.
Oakdale’s two losses were by one point to Showdown host Clovis West – a Central Section behemoth that has reached the Division I title game for the last 17 consecutive seasons – and in overtime to Clovis, which beat Clovis West in last year’s final.
“Rio really set the bar with nine championships in a row,” Kline said. “We want to be there again. That’s our goal every year.”