As young players for the Sage Hill School boys' water polo team, sophomore Rachael Jaffe and freshmen Paige Solaas and Laurenz Dodge could be considered X-factors.
One way they differ from their teammates, though, is the XX chromosome.
Yes, Jaffe, Solaas and Dodge are girls playing on the boys' team for the Lightning. But more than that, they are valued contributors.
"Everyone enjoys and welcomes them on the team," Sage Hill Coach Tom Norton said. "They're great additions to our squad."
Jaffe is a goalie, splitting time in the cage with Zack Drobenko. She is a talented athlete. She plays club water polo for SOCAL and also plays club soccer, as well as on the Lightning girls' soccer team during the winter season.
Jaffe made 19 saves during the Irvine varsity tournament, which Sage competed in over the weekend, going 1-3. Last year, as a freshman, she also played water polo for Sage.
"It wasn't awkward because [opponents] just treated me like a normal person, a normal player," Jaffe said. "They were a bit surprised at first, like, 'Oh, they have a girl on their team.' But then they got over it and they kept playing."
As a goalie, Jaffe has seen the difference between boys' and girls' shooters.
"Girls place their shots and think about it, and guys muscle their way through the shots," she said.
But, as field players, Solaas and Dodge also have a unique set of challenges. Water polo can be a very physical sport, with much of the action happening underwater and away from the eyes of the referee.
Solaas, whose older brother Cole (tennis) and sister Lauren (volleyball) also play sports at Sage, has plenty of water polo experience. She has played club for Anteater and CdM, and rehabilitated from back injuries last year. She's a driver for the Lightning.
Dodge is in her first year playing water polo.
"Usually I play tennis, and it's the same season as water polo," she said. "I missed the tennis tryouts. Paige was telling me about the water polo team ... I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, I guess. I didn't really know how difficult it was, or how difficult it would be, but I've had so much fun playing. So far it's been a good experience."
Sage Hill had a girls' water polo team in the past, coached by Norton, but the program disbanded several years ago due to low participation numbers.
This trio of girls is now helping buoy the boys' water polo team, which appears to be on the upswing. Senior Arya Nakhjavani, a co-captain who has earned Newport-Mesa Dream Team honors each of the last two years, said everyone enjoys having them on the squad.
"We are protective of them, but we don't give them any special treatment," Nakhjavani said. "They pull their own weight, and they try just as hard as any other member of the team. I respect that, and I'm glad they're on the team. I think it's a good example for other schools and other girls. If there's no girls' team, go ahead and join the guys' team. More power to them."
Sage's team in general seems to be more powerful than last year. Practices have moved from nights at Orange Coast College to University High, where Norton is a girls' water polo and boys' swim coach. That commute is easier for many of the players on Sage Hill.
Numbers in the program are up from 12 to 19, Nakhjavani said. And Sage Hill won the Costa Mesa junior varsity tournament in mid-September.
The Lightning boys — and girls — will keep doing their best to make this a successful season. The Orange Coast League opener is Oct. 9 against Godinez, at University.
Solaas, sitting on the pool deck at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center on Friday, said that playing on the boys' team has provided some funny moments.
"We walked in today and they were all like, 'Wait, is there a girls' tournament going on?'" she said. "We heard people talking, and they don't realize that we're on the team.
"It's hard to adjust at first. It's definitely different and harder, but I think it makes us stronger players."
•Another notable female athlete this fall is Estancia High sophomore Kinley Ohland. Not only has she played No. 1 singles for the Eagles' varsity girls' tennis team each of the last two years, but she also is a varsity cheerleader this year for Estancia.
She swept in last week's 14-4 Orange Coast League opening victory against rival Costa Mesa
"I think that I'm more confident because I already know what it's like," Ohland said of her role in tennis. "Just any chance I can get to hit it hard."
Ohland, 5-foot-3, started playing tennis tournaments when she was 8, before stopping around 12. Her skills remain evident, and the same is true in cheerleading, which is especially busy in the fall because of football season.
Ohland typically goes to half of the girls' tennis practice from 2 p.m. to 3:15, then the latter half of cheerleading practice until 4:30 p.m.
"[Estancia cheer coach Sarah German] is really understanding about it, so I'm lucky," Ohland said. "It's stressful on me, because I know that I'm letting both teams down in a way. I'm not as committed as I'd like to be for both teams. I miss a lot of learning new things [in cheerleading], and I have to catch up on my own ... but I like to do both."