Cabrillo College sophomore Belene Rodriguez currently has 67 goals and has been a stalwart for the Seahawks women's water polo team this season. (Juan Reyes/The Pajaronian)

Just last year the Cabrillo College women’s water polo program was barely in existence when it skipped the 2022 season after it didn’t have enough players to field a team.

The Seahawks managed to rebuild and regroup this year including three returning players from the 2021 squad that finished 1-6 in Coast Conference South Division play, and 5-10 overall. 

A member of that same team is sophomore wing Sadie Bigler, who was upset because she was expecting a higher turnout, especially after playing decently just two years ago. 

“But having a real team this year was awesome and really just a chance to show everyone what Cabrillo can do,” Bigler said.

So far, the Turlock High product has led Cabrillo to a successful campaign in 2023, helping them reach an 11-2 overall record and 4-2 in Coast Conference play. 

“[It’s] mostly just working on our chemistry during practice,” Bigler said. “We do a lot of team building drills so that we can get along with each other in and out of the pool. And I think that that’s really helpful. Especially in the water because if you can communicate openly with people and you have that flow, that chemistry, it works out well.”

According to the California Community College Athletic Association website, Bigler is third in the conference with 55 goals scored this season. 

Cabrillo first-year head coach George-Paul Scheppler has managed to assemble one of the largest water polo teams in the program’s history in just two months. 

Scheppler said he’s been fortunate that water polo is in a great place locally in Santa Cruz County. He also believes it was a combination of having a great captain in Bigler, who was his first player committed to play.

“When you have a player like [Bigler], it makes it easier,” Scheppler said. “We have so many [NCAA Division I] level players on this team that we just kind of built that momentum and kept it going, and it’s been really fun. Really fun.” 

Scheppler, 40, competed, worked and coached across a multitude of sports during his career including swimming and diving for Providence College, working as an ocean lifeguard on Cape Cod and serving as a surface rescue swimmer in the United States Navy.

He is accompanied poolside by his service dog Posey to become the first head coach/service dog duo to coach in the CCCAA. Scheppler said there’s no doubt that having his dog helps him cope with anxiety and tension during the games. 

“Having Posey not only helps me, but she really helps the team, too,” Scheppler said. “I always tell the girls we can’t take this too seriously. At the end of the day, we have to have fun. And nobody has more fun than Posey.” 

One of those NCAA Division I caliber type players Scheppler referred to is sophomore Belen Rodriguez—a former Santa Cruz High standout and San Jose State University kick back. 

Rodriguez currently leads the Seahawks with 67 goals, which is the second best mark in the Coast Conference. Cabrillo scores roughly 16 goals per game. 

“I think that our team has quite a few pretty strong offensive and defensive players that can go two to two, if need be,” Rodriguez said. “I think having that kind of spread out level of strong, confident talent is also pretty good. But also awareness, being able to see each other in the pool and set each other up, it’s been working out really well.”

Other standouts include D-I bounce back Olivia Garley, D-II bounce back Sierra Nielson and a multitude of future D-II commits.

Freshman goalie Lucy Fitzgerald—a former San Lorenzo Valley High standout—has been a brick wall in front of the net. She has allowed just 37 goals and has a 64.4 save percentage in 11 games played.

“[Fitzgerald] is our eyes. Oftentimes when we’re on 6-on-5s she’ll tell us to scoot over on the post, get your hand up, she sees things that we don’t so we can lean on her a little bit,” Bigler said. 

Rodriguez added having a vocal goalie definitely does more good than bad, especially when they’re on defense.

“I think by now we’ve all gotten pretty used to Lucy [Fitzgerald] and our other goalie, Olivia [Garley], talking and working things out for us,” Rodriguez said. “They’re able to just walk us through stuff.”

Fitzgerald and sophomore setter Natalie Hernandez—an Aptos High alumna—were teammates alongside Bigler during the 2021 season.

For Bigler, it’s about building the water polo program back up and leaving it in better shape than when she arrived. She said high school teams in the area have a lot of talent and it’s sad to see local girls going off to play at other community colleges before looking at Cabrillo.

“The girls and guys coming up from high school need to see that,” said Bigler, who also coaches a club team. “My littles are like, ‘Oh Sadie, where do you go to college?’ and I’m like, I go to Cabrillo, and I’m really proud to tell them that.”

Rodriguez is also set on rebuilding the program and forming a bond that wasn’t there in the beginning of the season. She said they spent time figuring out where the new pieces would fit in the puzzle and what works best for them as a team.

“I think definitely now we understand what our potential could be,” Rodriguez said.

Next up, the Seahawks will compete in the Santa Barbara Community College Halloween Tournament at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta starting Friday.

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A Watsonville native who has a passion for local sports and loves his community. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College, San Jose State University and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumnus, he primarily covers high school athletics, Cabrillo College athletics, various youth sports in the Pajaro Valley and the Santa Cruz Warriors. Juan is also a video game enthusiast, part-time chef (at home), explorer and a sports junkie. Coaches and athletic directors are encouraged to report scores HERE.


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