More than 500 water polo teams and over 8,000 athletes spent the better part of two weeks in battling it out at the sport's pinnacle event: The Jr. Olympics. In what can only be described as a Cinderella story, the under-14 680 Drivers girls water polo team was awarded the national title.
After their seventh place finish at the Jr. Olympics in 2012 the 680 Drivers, a team comprised of girls from the San Ramon Valley, set a goal to be the best in 2013. They doubled their efforts by adding additional practice sessions, including a considerable commitment to dry land conditioning in addition to swim team and regular water polo practice.
"Their teamwork, tenacity and willingness to work hard was unmatched by any group of girls I've ever coached," said 680 coach Todd Halvorson. "s a coach, what more could I ask for? For 12 months these girls gave me everything I asked of them and more. Now they can enjoy the fruits of their labors as they have been crowned national champions".
For most this equated to two to three practice sessions per day while cramming in any weekend tournament they could find.
The hard work clearly paid off early as they went undefeated in the Jr. Olympic qualifying tournament, the Drivers were seeded seventh going into the big show. The competition's four full days of polo would test not only their stamina, but their skills and resolve.
The 680 girls drew a difficult bracket that they needed to win to make it to the medal rounds. In day one of bracket play they easily defeated Bakersfield and Newport Beach. Day two was not so easy as they started against long-time nemesis, San Diego Shores. Shores is known for a very physical style of play but was unmatched by 680's speed and fluid passing.
Because No. 2 ranked Laguna Beach had lost an earlier game, all 680 had to do was win or tie the game in regulation time to win their bracket and progress on. 680 took a big lead early, but the lead diminished by the forth quarter.
The lead flip-flopped twice in the final minutes and ended in a tie after regulation play. This led to two nail-biting shootouts and in the end, Laguna came out on top of the game by one goal, but lost the bracket to 680.
The next morning brought a close game against Rose Bowl with 680 on top with a score of 11 8. This win put the Drivers into the semi-finals and a shot at the national title. The win also gave them the afternoon off while the loser's bracket battled for a semi-final berth.
Sunday morning brought back San Diego Shores from the losers bracket for another physical, drama filled game. When the final buzzer sounded, 680 was up by two and the Drivers secured a place in the finals against No. 1 seed and last year's gold medal winner, Santa Barbara.
The Drivers were focused for the final at the UC Irvine stadium pool, not intimidated by their underdog status nor the announcers and TV crew.
680 won the sprint and scored in the first 20 seconds of the game but the score was never separated by more than one or two goals. At one point, Santa Barbara was up by one but 680 quickly came back.
The final minutes of the game, 680 center Lexi Liebowitz scored a miracle shot to go ahead. With her head being held under by two defenders and the ball in hand behind her , Lexi flicked the ball backhanded over her back, and over the goalkeepers head for the score.
The final found 680 upsetting Santa Barbara by one goal.