After taking a year off from water polo, Sacred Heart Prep junior Nellie McAdams jumped back in during the summer and made significant strides in her goaltending abilities.
She was put to the test Saturday, recording 10 saves to help the third-seeded Gators beat Los Gatos, 8-7, in the opening round of the Central Coast Section Open Division at Menlo-Atherton.
Castilleja, seeded fifth, dropped a 7-6 decision to fourth-seeded St. Francis at Mountain View.
This year being the first for a water polo Open Division and NorCal tournament, there's still a few bugs in the system.
Neither the Titans, a Division I team, nor Castilleja, a Division II team, have anywhere to go after each won their regular-season titles. It was only the first-round winners who were guaranteed advancing into the NorCals.
Palo Alto and Menlo School were the beneficiaries. The Vikings edged visiting Menlo-Atherton, 11-10, and the Knights edged host Aptos, 7-5, in Divisions I and II, respectively, to advance into Tuesday's semifinals.
Fifth-seeded Palo Alto (11-17) meets top-seeded Mountain View (16-8) at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Los Alto High while third-seeded Menlo (14-12) plays No. 2 Sobrato (19-6) at Gunn on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
The Open Division guaranteed that there will be new champions in Division I and II. Sacred Heart Prep still has a chance to add another CCS title to the past 10 Division II titles the Gators have won.
"This being the first Open Division, we played a different team that we're used to from Division II," said McAdams, who recorded four of her saves during a fourth period SH Prep rally. "We had to learn about them without seeing them. We focused on our strengths."
The sixth-seeded Wildcats (20-4), who shared the SCVAL De Anza Division regular-season title with Gunn, gave SHP everything it could handle, taking a 4-1 lead early in the second quarter that forced Gators' coach Jon Burke to call a timeout.
"I was a little nervous," Burke said. "It's a little frustrating because if they got the next goal I felt they had the upper hand. We've been down to good teams before and came back but this was the first time we've ever played Los Gatos."
The Gators weathered the storm, scoring the final three goals of the first half to take a 4-all tie into the intermission.
Los Gatos, another worthy team that saw its season end, didn't go away and took a 6-5 edge into the final period.
"The biggest difference from the last decade is that the first round of Division II was never as competitive as it is with the new playoff schedule. Here you have two of the top programs in the section playing each other right off the bat."
In the past, the Gators could prepare for their semifinals while putting in the work for the quarterfinals. Los Gatos had Burke's full attention.
"I think the timing was great," he said. "It's a great move for water polo in the area."
Freshman Eleanor Facey, who never played under the former structure, scored the first two goals of the fourth quarter to put Sacred Heart Prep up, 7-6, with with just about five minutes remaining to play.
The Wildcats scored on a power play to tie it before Nadia Paquin fired in the game-winner with 1:20 left.
"It's the culture and character of the team to show great determination and teamwork," Burke said. "It's nice to know we qualified for NorCals but that's not the focus, it's more a by-product. Our primary focus is on our section."
It helped that McAdams was ready to step in for the graduated Jane Rakow. McAdams said, that as a freshman, she learned a lot from Rakow while playing behind her.
After the year away, McAdams joined the summer club and developed skills along with conditioning.
"I have improved a lot," McAdams said.
With the Gators down by three early, McAdams said there was a sense of urgency.
"I think everybody stayed calm, cool and collected and just listened to each other," she said.
Facey and Paquin combined to score five goals for SH Prep. Addi Duvall, Claire Kerrigan and Bella Bachler also scored.
Castilleja was certainly up to competing with the Lancers and led for most of the first half. It was still in doubt until the end.
Georgia Lewis helped keep it close with nine saves while Claire Pisani and Minhee Chung each scored three goals.
Madison Lewis recorded three assists and four steals. Chung added one of each and Jui Steffen recorded an assist.
Castilleja ends the season as the four-time defending PAL champion.