Jillian Stapf: Handling whatever gets thrown at her

Chris Podbielski

Internal tibial torsion, commonly known as “toe-in”, affects many children under the age of two, and usually corrects itself when a child learns to walk.

Jillian Stapf’s case however, proved a bit more severe — evidenced by the fact that her doctor could turn Stapf’s left foot around a full 360 degrees. He advised breaking the tibia to correct the problem, and then inserting screws to hold the bone in place. Stapf’s parents decided to find another doctor, who recommended a less invasive method. The new physician prescribed plaster, rather than surgery.

“I would run around with casts on,” said Stapf, who is one of the top collegiate water polo goalkeepers in the country. “It never seemed to slow me down too much. Every once in a while I’d trip over myself, but little kids do that anyway.”

Not only did the childhood treatment not slow Stapf down (she barely remembers it), but it also played a role in piloting her to her current position; starting goalie for the nationally-ranked Cal State Northridge women’s water polo team. Because of her impediment, her athletically minded parents got her swimming at the age of four. And a family friend clued her in to the possibilities of water polo when Stapf entered her freshman year in high school.

“Basketball was my thing for a long time,” said the 6’1″ Michigan native and avowed Detroit Pistons fan. “I already tried volleyball and softball but didn’t really take to those. And then my sister’s friend told me about water polo and how much she loved it. So I decided to try it for a year and I loved it too. And here I am now.”

Here, as in egg-beating her way to a season record-breaking 348 saves in her freshman year, which combined with this year’s stats (251 saves), place her at second-best in Matador career saves. Here, as in the first Northridge net minder to score from her cage, which she actually has accomplished twice. Here, as in leading her team to a pair of conference victories in 2007.

Molly Barnes, head coach of CSUN water polo, says plucking this unseen player from the mostly un-proven pools of the Midwest afforded a great opportunity for the team.

“We knew we were going from a goalie who was 5’6″ with great legs, but no one was ever afraid to shoot on her – to the opposite end of a spectrum. With Jill we were getting a goalie that just covers a lot of area and looks pretty big in the cage and so they don’t shoot as much. They’re a little more afraid to shoot on Jill.”

But besides filling a cage, Stapf’s presence looms large in other places too. Last summer she worked out with the Junior National Olympic water polo team, competing in pools in New Zealand and Australia. This year the Matador looks for the same level of competition, but also adds a new dimension to her game:

“She could go, potentially, to the Olympics if she chooses to stay involved and dedicate her life to that after her four years have ended at CSUN,” said Barnes. “She’s just a good kid, she’s never a problem and she gets her stuff done. But she also been chosen for the NCAA Leadership Conference and we’re really excited for her to go to the conference, and for her to learn and hone all of those leadership qualities she has.”

The Matadors compete in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), the toughest women’s water polo conference in the country. Stapf’s ability to deflect a skip shot (she currently places sixth in the conference in saves per game) rates nearly as much importance as her ability to really employ those leadership qualities. As the last defense between the goal and an opponent’s shot on net, Stapf needs to keep her head. The goalkeeper remembers that nail-biting first year competing in the MPSF.

“I was really nervous,” said Stapf. “Then again our whole team was really nervous because we had a lot of freshmen starting. We were really young. We’re still young, We’re only sophomores. But we definitely matured a lot last year. I still have a lot to learn but … it’s gotten better. I have more confidence and I have good teammates around me.”

It takes a really good kick, as well as a good head, to rise above in water polo. Barnes says Stapf has a great, professional ethic – the sophomore constantly works out her legs in practice and hardly needs any hand holding. When she showed up as a freshman player last year, Barnes remembers, Stapf showed up ready to go. It seems this student-athlete was ready to go the moment the casts came off in her childhood.

“The scariest thing about her and the best thing about her,” says Barnes, “is that potential she has. She’s an athlete. They don’t make them like that every day.”