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Tower of Power

Stachowski Stands Above the Crowd in Girls' Water Polo

February 06, 2001|MICHAEL ITAGAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's easy to see how Capistrano Valley's Amber Stachowski could be confused for a basketball player. At nearly 6 feet, she has a long, lean, athletic build, typical for a hoopster.

"I played for a while, but I didn't like it as much," Stachowski said.

She tried her foot at soccer too.

"I think I was too tall and skinny for soccer," Stachowski said. "I made all-stars, but I really hated running."

Hmmm, no running, so that leaves . . .

"My mom put me in ballet too," Stachowski said with a laugh.

And in the Stachowski family, they put the girls in the water. Her father, Mike, is a water polo coach, so the Stachowski girls jumped in and played with the boys' club teams.

Ten-plus years later, girls' water polo is flourishing, complete with their own club teams, sanctioned high school championships and college scholarships.

And after training and playing against boys until 1997, Amber Stachowski has blossomed into one of the finest high school players in the nation.

Just looking back at the roster of one of the first girls' teams Amber played for, it's easy to see how she got on the fast track to the top.

When she was 10, Stachowski played on a 13-and-under team that had a bushel of future stars, including:

* Robin Beauregard, a U.S. Olympian last year from UCLA, who graduated from Marina High.

* Jenny Lamb, also from UCLA and a former Times' player of the year who led Marina to the 1998 Southern Section Division I title.

* Cara Chlebicki, then another 10-year-old on the team, now a senior at Marina High. She has signed with California.

* Ashley Stachowski, Amber's older sister, who was a Times' all-county player who is also at UCLA.

Amber will join Ashley at UCLA next season, and this season, she continues to show her versatility.

After a summer in which she spent time as a driver, working out against the U.S. national team, and played primarily as a two-meter defender for the junior national team, Stachowski slides comfortably into the role as the offensive focal point for the Cougars.

"She is hands down the best player in Orange County," Foothill co-Coach Dan Klatt said after his team beat the Cougars this season. "She is head and shoulders above anyone else."

That fact is something Stachowski embraces reluctantly. She can dominate a game, but her selfless attitude creates a problem Capistrano Valley Coach Jason Lynch welcomes.

"She's definitely a total team player," Lynch said. "I have to tell her to be more selfish. She feels bad if she scores all the goals. She will give up scoring and tries to make passes to teammates, but they're not always ready."

Opposing coaches are usually ready for Stachowski and her sister Aimee, a sophomore, when their teams play the Cougars. Special game plans are in order.

Longtime El Toro Coach Don Stoll payed an ultimate compliment to Stachowski last season. In the closing moments of a victory over the Cougars that clinched the league title for the Chargers, Stoll told his players not to pass the ball to any teammate Stachowski was defending.

"She's a great defensive player," Stoll said, "a tremendous offensive player, and she has, what, about 13 years experience playing? She's been playing forever."

It's those intangibles that coaches love talking about.

"She has incredible awareness and knowledge of the game," Lynch said. "Sometimes, the team doesn't keep up with her. She'll flip a pass because she sees they're open, but they don't see it and it will catch them by surprise.

"I don't see any girl better than her right now. I still don't think she's played to her potential yet this year."

Stoll and El Toro caught a glimpse of that potential on Jan. 25, when the Cougars got revenge for last season's loss.

"She's the ultimate competitor," Stoll said. "She hates to lose. And when she gets mad, she plays better. Against us, she got mad and then scored three straight goals on us."

The Cougars won that game, 5-4.

"You can't make a team mistake or she'll see it," Irvine Coach Scott Hinman said. "And she can make her teammates better. That's one of the big things. There are a lot of great players that don't do that."

Despite thousands of compliments, hundreds of goals and dozens of awards, Stachowski's obvious physical talent isn't what impresses coaches most.

"It's her knowledge of the game that sets her apart," Rosary Coach Todd Sprague said. "Some look at her and say she's the prototype player, what, 5 feet 11, 6 feet tall, long and athletic, fast in the water and extremely talented.

"But combine all of that with her head for the game? Forget about it."

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