Wednesday, October 18

Linked in kin, bound for greatness

Sisters Priscilla and Sarah Orozco hope to lead water polo team to another national title

Sisters Sarah and Priscilla Orozco, members of the women's water polo team, played water polo together while growing up in Commerce. Sarah, a sophomore center, and Priscilla, a junior attacker, are starters for the defending NCAA champions.

Sisters Sarah and Priscilla Orozco, members of the women's water polo team, played water polo together while growing up in Commerce. Sarah, a sophomore center, and Priscilla, a junior attacker, are starters for the defending NCAA champions. Michael Chen

Gabriel Martinez knew he had seen some quality talent in Patricia and Salvador Orozco’s young daughters well before they had even touched a water polo ball.

Priscilla Orozco, 11, and Sarah Orozco, 10, at the time, showed promise as competitive swimmers at Commerce Aquatics, where their mom was a lifeguard. Martinez, the head women’s water polo coach at the club, knew Patricia and Salvador and was very eager for their daughters to join the water polo team.

The coach ran into a snag, though. He had very little trouble getting Sarah, the younger, more outgoing Orozco sister to join. The older Priscilla, on the other hand, put up much more resistance.

“Convincing Sarah wasn’t as hard; convincing Priscilla was really hard,” Martinez recalled. “I would have to chase her down and wait for her as she ran into the girls’ restroom. Getting her to play was a lot harder than getting Sarah to play.”

Eventually, Martinez was able to sway the sisters to join his team, and he was rewarded when Priscilla and Sarah eventually tapped into their potential. Within nine years, the sisters would evolve into high school stars, Division I NCAA athletes and national champions. The legacy of the sisters, one a junior and the other a sophomore, starts and ends with family.

The journey of the Orozcos to the UCLA women’s water polo team began very close to campus. Priscilla and Sarah grew up in the East Los Angeles suburb of Commerce, a short drive from Westwood on Interstate 10. With almost exactly a one-year age gap between them, it was only natural that they grew up doing many of the same things together.

They come from an athletic family, but it was their mother, Patricia, who had tried out many different aquatic sports, such as synchronized swimming and even some water polo. She eventually became a lifeguard at Commerce Aquatics and signed her two daughters up to swim competitively when Priscilla was 8 and Sarah was 7.

Sarah said water polo had never crossed their minds until Coach Martinez came calling.

Once he got them, it didn’t take long for the two of them to get the hang of it.

Within four years, both were leading the Commerce Club Team in Junior Olympic Club competitions, earning All-American accolades and receiving invitations to try out for the U.S. Youth National Team.

The Orozcos, along with a few teammates from Commerce Aquatics, went on to form a dynasty at Montebello High School, helping to lead the program to five straight Almont League titles.

Due to their high school successes, the sisters were on the radar of many Division I colleges, and those schools came calling, early and often.

Priscilla experienced the world of recruiting first, and choosing UCLA wasn’t very hard for her at all. In fact, she had been a Bruin fan from a very young age, though it had nothing to do with water polo.

“My dad had a lot to do with me coming here because every year for our birthday, he would bring us to UCLA basketball games,” Priscilla said. “He got the UCLA spirit in us. For me, it made my decision easier because I knew I always wanted to come here.”

It did not hurt that former coach Adam Krikorian had aggressively recruited her or that the Bruins had just won their third consecutive national championship.

With that, Priscilla signed with UCLA. By any measure, her first year was a success. She played every game as an attacker and tallied 25 goals, including one in the 2008 NCAA Championship match against USC, as UCLA notched a perfect 33-0 season for their fourth straight title.

Sarah, on the other hand, had a much harder time deciding on a school. She admitted that she was strongly considering USC but made her final decision based on the feeling of UCLA.

“It was pretty hard,” she said. “It came down to playing time and my surroundings. I already knew from coming to UCLA a little bit before how it was going to be, and I thought that the people here and the environment were better, and my sister was there.”

After watching Priscilla win the national championship, it affirmed in Sarah’s mind that she had made the right choice.

“Everything just felt right,” Sarah said.

The younger Orozco managed to earn her keep as a freshman by temporarily switching to the center position, a spot normally reserved for bigger players.

“She’s really strong,” said current coach Brandon Brooks, an assistant on last year’s team. “Even though she’s not that tall, she can definitely hold her own in there. She fights really hard, works really hard all the time, so that makes up for some disadvantages in size.”

Priscilla at attacker and Sarah at center are two of the seven starters in UCLA’s lineup, and the Orozcos accounted for more than 16 percent of the team’s scoring.

Their teammates will attest that the girls share a sisterly bond in the pool as well, something that benefits all parties.

“You can definitely tell (that they have a connection),” junior defender Kelly Easterday said. “Priscilla will give Sarah a pass that none of us can make. It’s their own intuition that lets them know when they’re open, or anything like that.”

Brooks added that their connection keeps them competitive with each other.

“I think the biggest thing about the sisterly thing is that they’ve been there to push each other all the time,” Brooks said. “They’ve been there to make each other better. One gets a little better, the other has to catch up, one gets better, the other has to catch up.”

And at the home games in Spieker Aquatics Center, it becomes apparent that the Orozcos have one of the biggest fan clubs, led by their parents, 12-year-old brother Salvador, 5-year-old sister Salma and a host of extended family and friends.

“You walk in and their whole family is sitting there, like the extended family and little baby sister and little brother and stuff, so that’s always funny,” junior center Katie Estrada said. “And after every game someone, part of the Orozco family, will come up to you and they’ll give you a hug.”

As for their future, Priscilla and Sarah both know that one day, the U.S. National Team may come calling, but they are focused on the great task at hand in the present.

“I dream of finishing with four championships,” Priscilla said. “It’s hard work, but I mean, girls before us have done it, so it’s not impossible.”

“Last year was the best feeling ever,” said Sarah. “Knowing we can do it four times, that would be awesome.”

Above all else, however, the sisters are enjoying the opportunity to play with each other and in front of their closest fans, not that that’s anything new for the Orozcos.

“Against USC, we played at home last year. Almost half of the stands was all of our family or people that we know,” Priscilla said. “We have a big family, and we’re really involved with our family, and they love to come out.”

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