by Cole Wagner
Special to the Langley Advance
They had to travel across the country to Montreal, but thanks to stellar play from Fraser Valley Water Polo Club’s U16 girls team, the national title is staying at home in B.C. for another year.
The squad – which includes Langley players Deena Charles and Emily Bird – emerged triumphant from this past weekend’s national championships, which saw the top water polo clubs from across Canada play off to determine the best team in Canada in four divisions.
It took a fourth quarter comeback to seal the deal against a determined Team Saskatchewan, but Katarina Preocanin made no mistake on a late power play, tallying a go-ahead marker that would prove to be the game winner.
This year, only one team emerged from the Fraser Valley to qualify for the championships – and hardly anyone was surprised that it was the U16 girls team to dominate the western conference en-route to the final tournament.
Last season, Valley’s U16 girls climbed the ladder by qualifying through their silver medal finish at western championships, eventually capturing their first national title in a thriller against the Calgary Renegades.
With some key returning players, supported by a cast of talented younger athletes, head coach Justin Mitchell knew early on in the season that the experience of winning championships the year prior had only made the girls hungrier to repeat as champions.
“Our girls were ready, right from the start of the season. They came together and understood what their goal was, and they knew what they had to do to win again,” said Mitchell, who was named Most Valuable Coach for the second straight season after the national championship win.
But not even he could predict the juggernaut team that would emerge over the course of the National Championship League season, which ran from October to May, culminating in the national championships May 27 and 28.
The U16 girls went undefeated throughout league play, quickly establishing themselves as the team to beat in the west.
A perfect, 20-0 record was complimented by an almost unheard of goal-scoring prowess; the Fraser Valley squad scored 228 more goals on their opposition than they allowed, a staggering goal differential that was 219 goals better than the second place team in the west.
But to say the climb to repeat as champions was a cakewalk for the girls would be to downplay their opposition. Team Saskatchewan gave the team their first scare in the western championship final, as the first team to come within six goals of the Fraser Valley girls. Though Valley took the gold, Team Saskatchewan played down to the wire, and the margin of victory was only a single goal.
It was fitting then, that the two teams would meet again for the national title, after each team bested their competition from the east in the semi-finals.
And despite a season of domination, Fraser Valley’s squad took everything they could handle from the upstart Team Saskatchewan.
It was a back and forth affair – Valley led throughout the first quarter, but a low-scoring second kept the game knotted at two at the half. As Team Saskatchewan seized the lead in the third, Valley stayed in the match thanks to a goal from Ava Morrant.
Staring down a one goal deficit in the final quarter, with only four and half minutes remaining in the match, Valley’s offense and depth came into play. Kinga Wisniewska, named to the NCL all-star team earlier in the year, set up Morrant for another strike to tie the game at six.
The scene was set for dramatics with the clock ticking down and the score tied, but Preocanin’s power play goal at 1:13 brought the tension in the pool to an all-time high.
Team Saskatchewan earned a power play of their own with one minute remaining in the match, but a clutch block and a huge stop from all-star goalie Gabby Mantyka shut the door on Saskatchewan’s best chance to even the game.