Four-year build sees La Costa Canyon reach semi-final of CIF Open Division girls water polo playoffs

LCC star Mia MacDonald scored a pair of goals in the CIF semi-final and more than 300 in her high school career.
LCC star Mia MacDonald scored a pair of goals in the CIF semi-final and more than 300 in her high school career.
(Ken Grosse)

Viewed strictly through the prism of the moment, it would be easy to quantify La Costa Canyon’s, 7-3, loss to Grossmont in the Feb. 15 CIF Open Division girls water polo semi-final at Coggan Pool (La Jolla High School) as a disappointment.

Certainly there were a few postgame tears on the deck but when the Mavericks’ senior star Mia MacDonald was asked how she felt, in that moment, about her four-year career the one word description was resolute.

Maverick senior Vismaya Hoehn got the team's second goal vs. Grossmont.
Maverick senior Vismaya Hoehn got the team’s second goal vs. Grossmont.
(Ken Grosse)

“Happy,” she said smiling, savoring the enormity of her team’s 28-3 campaign and her own 300-plus goal prep career that saw a re-imagined LCC program make a dizzying climb from Division III afterthought to the precipice of an Open Division crown. “I’m just really happy.

“After being in the Division II playoffs the last two years, we started the season hoping we would simply make the Division I tournament. So, just making the Open bracket was a great accomplishment on its own and being able to come all this way with so many new people who have developed and grown so much—that’s been incredible.”

Contested at 8 p.m. on a cold, breezy night with intermittent rain, the semi-final had an uneven feeling to it from the start. LCC was the No. 2 seed in the eight-team field and entered the game with a 28-2 record. The Mavericks downed Rancho Bernardo, 12-11, in the first round. Grossmont, seeded third, sported a 22-5 ledger and routed Helix, 11-5, to earn the slot opposite LCC. In December, La Costa Canyon had edged Grossmont by a goal when they met in non-league tournament play.

Fourth-year LCC Head Coach Sean Joy.
Fourth-year LCC Head Coach Sean Joy.
(Ken Grosse)

Between them, the two adversaries had accumulated nearly 700 goals in the regular season yet when the second period buzzer sounded to end the first half only one goal had been scored. Senior Katie O’Laughlin accounted for the lone marker just over a minute in to give the Foothillers a 1-0 advantage that held up through to the break.

The first half was trying for LCC, not only because they were unable to get on the scoreboard but because their aggressive, pressing defensive style was creating solid opportunities. Several shots off the post and crossbar along with some nifty work by Grossmont goalie Erica Neri (10 saves) kept the Mavs from getting results. Failing to capitalize on four power play situations didn’t help either.

“Their goalie was great but we definitely looked somewhat hesitant, reserved,” said fourth-year LCC Head Coach Sean Joy afterward. “Normally, we would be taking shots that we weren’t taking tonight. Instead, we were making an extra pass and not pulling the trigger.”

Two minutes into the second half, the Foothillers took advantage of their own 6-on-5 chance, Haddie Hall converting, to push the lead to 2-0. Ninety seconds later, though, MacDonald scored to cut the margin in half and, less than a minute after, senior teammate Vismaya Hoehn tied it up.

Emmie Mallory is part of a senior group that has been central to LCC's ascent to the CIF Open Division.
Emmie Mallory is part of a senior group that has been central to LCC’s ascent to the CIF Open Division.
(Ken Grosse)

But La Costa Canyon’s good fortune was short-lived. The third quarter’s final 22 seconds proved to be the turning point in the game. First, a Maverick ejection put Grossmont a player up and O’Laughlin immediately made the most of it, 3-2. Then, when a late LCC offensive try was turned away, O’Laughlin recovered the ball on the left wing and, with four seconds left, lofted a three-quarter length of the pool “hail mary” that was not only on target but somehow found its way into the net.

What had looked like a 50-50 game heading into the final period was now a two-goal hurdle for the Mavericks, a team that had lost just two games all season, both by a single goal. And when Grossmont’s Amelia Braun scored 40 seconds into the fourth quarter, La Costa Canyon was clearly swimming in uncharted waters.

“We had never really been there before, trailing by two heading in the last quarter, of an Open Division semi-final,” Joy said. “This was a new experience and we just didn’t execute.”

Senior Abby Baker showing some of LCC's pressure defense against Grossmont.
Senior Abby Baker showing some of LCC’s pressure defense against Grossmont.
(Ken Grosse)

Kristin Furuholmen netted another pair of goals midway through the period to make it five unanswered for the Foothillers. The verdict was virtually settled at that point although LCC got a late goal from MacDonald. Joy took the big picture view at the end.

“Like I told the girls, at the beginning of the season, we were talking about getting into the Division I tournament, maybe as an underdog in the 8v1 game,” said Joy. “Then we started winning some games and ended up here—that’s unreal.

“I can’t be more proud of these girls putting in so much effort, time and commitment. I know they’re sad now but this season is a win.”

It’s a triumph that’s really been four years in the making, coinciding with Joy’s appearance on the scene. A native of Orinda in Northern California’s East Bay region, he played four years of water polo at Stanford and was a starter and an All-American on the 1999 Cardinal squad that reached the NCAA Final Four hosted by UC San Diego.

While getting his master’s degree at Stanford, he began his water polo coaching career with the boys team at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School. He made the switch over to the girls’ game and had a series of coaching stops before moving to San Diego for family reasons in 2019.

“I enjoy coaching women,” Joy said. “They learn differently than men and I found it fit more effectively with my coaching style.”

Once in San Diego, with the help of longtime UCSD head men’s coach Denny Harper, he got his name out in the community, ultimately resulting in acceptance of the position at LCC.

There was definitely work to do. The program had not had a winning season since 2012 and went 63-98 in the six years prior to Joy’s arrival. His approach was not complicated.

“My whole philosophy, which I told the players and parents on day one is ‘I don’t care if we win a single game,’ “ he said. “I’m here to teach life lessons through the sport of water polo.

“I’m going to provide a venue for the girls to work hard and see rewards come from that. If a player doesn’t want to work hard, she shouldn’t be here.

“At first, it was like pulling teeth, but by the end of the first year, I found that they loved working hard, fighting through adversity and, most of all, doing it together. That set the tone. Now it’s expected and players are asking for more.”

Results arrived quickly and just kept on coming. In season one, the Mavs went 21-11 and knocked off top-seeded San Dieguito Academy, 7-6 (OT) to capture the CIF D-III title, the school’s first in the sport. In 2020, LCC moved up to Division II, the record was 10-8 but they reached the CIF D-II final, falling 10-9 to Mar Vista. In the Covid season of 2021, they improved to 13-2 and again made it all the way to the D-II championship before coming up short, 8-6, against Santana.

Of course, 2022 has been well-documented. Joy coaches 11 seniors, eight who have been on the varsity roster since his first year. That group includes Mia MacDonald, Morgan McNeff, and Abby Baker who are tri-captains. They are joined by Emmie Mallory, Bella Deangelis, Vismaya Hoehn, Brooklyn Waterman and Bella Goodrow. A ninth senior, goalie Delaney Keupper (committed to play college polo at UC Irvine), transferred in from Torrey Pines two years ago.

Despite the program’s rising profile, there are still obstacles to navigate. The team practices at the Ecke YMCA in Encinitas, roughly five miles from school and is allotted two evening hours of practice time during the season to cover both the varsity and JV squads. Often, the JV unit works out in half a pool. The lack of a campus pool also means no organized off-season training.

But, as Joy says, “success breeds success” and despite the limitations, the combined varsity/JV roster has expanded from 18 players in year one to its current 40.

“Younger girls are looking up to our seniors,” said Joy. “They’re playing club polo in the summer and learning what it takes to be a great player and great teammates.”

A foundation has been laid, but two big question loom. First, with the stellar senior class set to graduate in June, what’s the next step? And, just as importantly, will Joy remain in place to develop a new generation?

The owner of a home-building business centered in Northern California and the father of a 7-year-old daughter, Joy has other significant interests in his life, and coaching high school water polo is not going to make anyone wealthy.

In talking to Joy before and after the Mavericks’ final game of 2022, though, it’s obvious this team and this program have become an important part of who he is, as well.

“Four years is a lot, my daughter is getting older and some balancing aspects are getting a little tougher,” he said. “But I love giving back to the community for a sport that gave me a lot.

“It’s not going to be easy to say goodbye to this senior group, but rebuilding could also be fun. It would be fun to be part of that.”