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Cypress' Smith enjoys the tough times
CYPRESS Sarah Smith jokingly calls it her “dark” phase.
Before finding her passion in the pool as a rough-and-tumble water polo player at Cypress, she competed in Southern California beauty pageants.
She also briefly modeled. But some of her water polo teammates don’t really believe her.
“You were a model? You wore makeup?” they ask. “You looked like a girl?”
Smith understands the skepticism.
“Because I play (water polo) with the guys all the time,” she said. “It’s my dark period. It’s my embarrassing time.”
Smith now sparkles in the pool. On Saturday, the senior will lead Cypress (19-8) into the CIF-SS Division 6 quarterfinals for a third consecutive season. The Centurions play No. 3 seed Westridge of Pasadena at Pasadena City College at noon.
Smith and her teammates hope to reach the semifinals, where they could face No. 2 seed Ocean View on Wednesday.
Smith and Cypress have already accomplished plenty. The Centurions captured consecutive league titles this season for the first time, finishing undefeated in the Empire League for the second straight winter.
Smith, a 5-foot-71/2 utility player, leads the team with 106 goals, which is single-season school record. Her total ranks among the leaders in Orange County.
These are major feats for a lower-division program that sometimes gets overshadowed by neighbors such as Los Alamitos and Long Beach Wilson.
Smith takes prides in the success. Her brother, Billy, played at Cypress with her current coach, Ryan Poole. Her sister, Becky, also played water polo for the Centurions.
“We’re building our name in the polo world,” Smith said. “I’ve always had to prove that it doesn’t matter what high school you come from. It doesn’t matter what club program (you play for).
“As long as you put in the effort, then you’re just as a good as the next person. … That’s always been my little chip on my shoulder.”
Smith grew up playing water polo, well before her brief trek into modeling during junior high school. She was considered a solid player, but after her sophomore season at Cypress, she committed to raising her level of play.
Smith started practicing with the adult Masters players at her club, Los Alamitos-based International. She also began training with boys teams.
“I (wanted to) start practicing against people who were better and stronger than me,” she said.
Smith said the Masters workouts mostly featured men who formerly played in college. There were usually no other high school girls, she said.
The practices were physical but Smith endured. She was once accidently flipped by her club coach, David Nunez, during an attempt to drive into center. She also remembers ducking away from a power-play shot in front of the post by former Los Alamitos standout Clayton Snyder.
“It was terrifying,” she said of her introduction to Masters. “I got a split lip once. That was fun.”
The Masters workouts fast-forwarded her progress. She now has a knack for drawing exclusions, turning her defender and playing her own physical style.
“I’m used to playing with the guys and Masters, so I’ve got to be a little meaner. I’ve got to be tougher,” she said.
Last season, Smith scored 85 goals and was selected Empire League MVP, an award she could earn again this year. She is also the school’s career scoring leader with more than 200 goals.
“She’s a phenomenal player,” Poole said of Smith. “She’s very smart about the game.”
Smith isn’t shy about sharing what she has learned with teammates. She is a vocal and encouraging player who rattles off the triumphs of sophomore defender Keiana Kozai and freshman Jordan Dufour.
“It’s helped me grow,” said Smith, who has mentored elementary-age girls with her mother, Sheila, who is a teacher.
“I’ve got to trust (my teammates) and I have to help develop them.”
College recruiters have noticed Smith.
In November, she made an unofficial recruiting trip to Wagner College in Staten Island, New York. She also has applied to Chapman, Cal State Monterey Bay, Azusa Pacific and reigning Division III champion Connecticut College.
Smith said her recruiting process is open, but she is certain about her love of the sport. Make no mistake, water polo now wears the queen’s crown.
“It’s my escape,” she said. “Even if I lose a game, I’ll be sad but losing a game is better than not being able to play it at all.”
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