It is unusual to see a freshman’s name perched atop the Big West leader boards for total goals in women’s water polo.
The fact that two freshmen at No. 16 UCSB — utilities Samantha Murphy and Jessie Porter — have simultaneously finished in the 2013 top 10 goal scorers is almost unprecedented, yet it is now reality.
Their success paints a bright future for Gaucho water polo. However, the team’s success this year has been reinforced by a foundation rooted more comfortably in the film and weight rooms than in the spotlight.
Unbeknownst to many out of the pool, seniors Rachel Nelson and Shelby Haroldson have been dynamite for Santa Barbara behind the scenes.
“They provide the senior leadership, no doubt, and they have mentored the younger players,” Head Coach Cathy Neushul said. “That’s why we’ve grown as a team.”
Their play this year has helped bring Santa Barbara to a 19-13 overall record with an improved .594 winning percentage, compared to .571 last season.
Haroldson, an attacker, leads the team with 43 assists and 49 steals while Nelson, manning the utility position, is right behind with 38 assists and 39 steals. Numbers alone, though, do not encapsulate the breadth of their impact as teammates in and out of the pool.
“If you have a team that has white-collar workers, the people who are full of statistics, they must have the blue-collar workers with them to make them shine,” Neushul said. “Rachel and Shelby are the blue-collar workers. There’s no doubt about that.”
Nelson and Haroldson individually accrue the most minutes-per-game for UCSB, and their experience and grit in playing the trenches have been pivotal in creating opportunities for the team.
“This team’s success relies 100 percent on them,” Neushul said. “They are the two players that never come out of the game, ever — the only two.”
Both players say that their inspiration to play water polo stemmed from an early exposure to team sports and the swimming pool. Nelson and Haroldson became drawn to the sport after their sisters introduced them to the game in high school.
“[My sister] started playing in high school before me, and I actually like playing a game in the pool,” Nelson said. “It’s a lot more fun than just swimming.”
As seniors now looking to lead the Gauchos through the Big West Championship this weekend, Nelson and Haroldson have stepped into the role of leaders not only in the games, but outside practice as well.
Both study biology and strive to maintain focus in the pool as well as in the classroom. Nelson was recently honored as a Big West Scholar Athlete of the Year.
“They’re both very serious students; they’re not your typical Gauchos,” Neushul said. “They make the right choices all the time, in the pool and out of the pool — that’s the kind of role model that I want on my team.”
Nelson and Haroldson also endeavor to impart advice they hope will be helpful to future UCSB water polo squads.
“The examples that they’ve set here will carry on into the future; it already has,” Neushul said. “[Other players] now understand what it takes to be a student-athlete thanks to Rachel and Shelby.”
With their last chance for a NCAA Championship bid on the line, Nelson and Haroldson figure again to be a dependable and dynamic presence in the Big West Tournament.
“We want to do well; even if we don’t win, I want to play well,” Haroldson said. “And I want to be playing the last couple minutes of our last game.”
If history is any indication, there will be no plans for them to come out.
A version of this article appeared on page 13 of April 24th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
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