2017-01-13 / Sports
Russell is Royal’s not-so-secret star
GIRLS’ WATER POLO /// Royal Highlanders Junior goalie is centerpiece of Highlander girls’ water polo defense
Royal High’s girls’ water polo team has the speed to beat opponents down the pool during counterattacks and the firepower to light up the scoreboard.
The back-to-back CIF-Southern Section Division 4 champions score at will, but a new-look lineup has forced the Highlanders to rely on something more than its potent arsenal.
Enter Shaeleigh Russell, a junior goalie who earned All-CIF First Team honors last year.
She’s Royal’s not-so-secret weapon this winter.
“Last year she was a good goalie, but she was not as strong as she is today,” head coach Devin Hurst said. “That year of experience has allowed us to change our defense a little bit and run different things.”
Highlander teammates know the 16-year-old is a special player.
“It’s so nice,” junior Shayne Naylor said. “When we mess up, she’s always there. If we get countered or if there’s a 5-meter (penalty throw) she’s always there to back us up.”
Russell, a third-year varsity goalie, has been a wall in the cage since her freshman year, even if she didn’t always know it.
She shared time with then-senior Mackenzie Richards before Richards claimed sole possession of the starting role. The backup role wasn’t what Russell hoped for at the time, and it affected her mindset.
“When she started playing better than me it made me think she was way better than I was,” Russell said of Richards, who holds the school record with 297 saves in a season. “I plateaued, and she rose above.”
Looking back, Russell knows that season was integral to her development. She wouldn’t settle for a backup role again. She wanted to dominate at the position.
She excelled as the starter in 2016, helping the team successfully defend its section title.
Russell spent the past summer focusing on building leg strength by training with a weight vest. She’s now more explosive propelling her body in and out of the water. Her legs allow her to levitate in front of the goal like Criss Angel floating over the Las Vegas Strip.
“She’s definitely gotten better since last year, but at the same time, she was so amazing last year.”
Russell’s also improved on the details of water polo. She delivers smarter and more precise passes. She has eight assists off of outlet passes during counterattacks.
“She’s helped our transition,” Hurst said. “She makes safe passes. She’s not turning the ball over.”
Russell, the daughter of Ryan and Melissa Russell, had the experience of a lifetime this summer by playing the sport in Italy with her Rose Bowl Water Polo Club teammates.
The member of the club’s U-16 team originally thought she wouldn’t be able to travel with the U-18 team.
“At the last minute they asked me if I wanted to go because one girl dropped out,” said Russell, who jumped at the opportunity. “I played a lot more than I thought I would. It was fun.”
The team visited Bogliasco, Rapallo, Imperia and Camogli while training and playing daily. The club compiled a perfect 8-0 record on the trip, and Russell learned a thing or two about how Italy plays the game.
“It was cool playing against Italians,” she said. “It’s a different atmosphere. I just know they play dirtier than us. I got beat up a little.”
The bruises wore off, but her talent is still prevalent.
Russell started playing water polo in seventh grade because her of her uncles, Tyler and Chad Templeton, who enjoyed their time on the Royal boys’ water polo team.
The junior wants to leave her own mark at Royal, including a certain record.
No hard feelings, but Russell is gunning for Richards’ season saves mark.
“I’m definitely trying to beat that record,” Russell said.
CATCH UP WITH THE HIGHLANDERS
Royal High lost many of its stars from last year’s section championship team, but the Highlanders are still in the mix to make a postseason run this winter.
“Surprisingly, we’ve held up very well,” head coach Devin Hurst said. “We haven’t allowed too many counter goals against us. Coming from a team that could swim very well last year, this team’s actually surprised me with their swimming ability and transition game.”
Royal (5-4 overall, 2-0 in the Coastal Canyon League) competes in Division 1 this winter. The squad had captured back-to-back Division 4 titles.
Two of the team’s setbacks came against Orange Lutheran and Santa Barbara, two top-10 Division 1 powerhouses.
Dara Bleiberg, a senior, is a talented attacker.
Natalie Espinoza, a senior 2-meter defender, is a savvy veteran.
Sydney Hurst, a junior, is a force at 2-meter. She leads the team in goals and ejections drawn.
Shayne Naylor, a junior attacker, is a solid defender and speedy driver.
Newcomers Kris Saczynski, Maddie Van Meter, and Ally Arnold also contribute for Royal.
The Highlanders are competing in San Diego this weekend at the Tournament of Champions.
The team resumes league action at 3:15 p.m. Jan. 19 against Calabasas at Rancho Simi Community Park pool.
Email Jonathan Andrade at firstname.lastname@example.org.