She looks like a typical college student, enjoying the last stretch of adolescence and freedom in her life when not hunkered down in classrooms and pouring over notes and laptops to provide the groundwork for an eventual profession.
But put Madeleine Sanchez in a pool with ball and a goal to shoot at, and she becomes a machine.
The Cal State University Northridge junior is slinging her way through the school and Big West Conference woman’s water polo record books. Since coming to CSUN as a freshman in 2015, Sanchez has totaled 152 goals through March 18 of this year. That leaves her 70 goals shy of the school’s all-time record held by Allison Brookes (222). The Big West Conference all-time leader is Jessy Cardey, who had 224 career goals while at UC Irvine.
After a relatively low-key freshman year, when she scored 28 goals with a veteran team, Sanchez burst into the NCAA Division I’s collective conscience with 73 goals as a sophomore to lead the Big West. And she has not slowed down this season despite increased efforts by opponents to stop or at least contain her, with 51 goals in the 22 matches she has played in.
“I wouldn’t say it’s extraordinary, putting up these numbers. I guess I’d say its more than people my age have been doing,” said Sanchez, who will turn 21 in May. “But it’s from working hard, working with my team, and being in the right place at the right time at getting shots. I’m just having fun, mostly.”
At 5-feet 4 inches tall, Sanchez has to maneuver around taller, stronger defenders to find the space to get her shot off. If she gets that space, there’s a good chance the goalie will be retrieving the ball from the back of the net.
Matt Warshaw, in his first year was the CSUN women’s head coach, said Sanchez is not simply feasting on average or below average teams.
“We’ve stepped up our strength of schedule the last two years,” Warshaw said. “This year we’ve already played the No.’s 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8 ranked teams in Division I. She’s scoring goals against the best girls in the country.”
In addition, Warshaw said, “the game has evolved and the level of play is higher across the board from top to bottom in Divisions I, II, III. The top 20 teams are definitely playing at a higher level now than they did 10 years ago. Which would make her record even more impressive if and when she breaks it.”
Jamey Wright of UC Davis is one of those opposing head coaches looking for ways to neutralize Sanchez. The teams met Saturday, March 18, in the conference opener for both. UC Davis came away with a 13-10 victory, and Wright was happy his defense held Sanchez to “only” two goals.
“She’s a fantastic athlete,” Wright said of Sanchez. “She’s a fast swimmer with really good legs. which is like having good hops in basketball. It enables you to get out of the water better and shoot higher. And she can get up. She also has a live arm.”
The skill set and abilities of Sanchez were apparent early. She grew up in Murrieta Valley and started playing the sport at age nine. At Murrieta Valley High School, she blossomed on teams that won four league and two CIF Southern Section titles.
“She had a lot of choices for college, and she chose [Northridge],” Warsaw said.
Sanchez’s college debut was a three-goal performance against Arizona State. And as her team responsibilities have grown in college career, so has her total of goals. But Sanchez is more than a scorer. She led the team in assists as sophomore and is tied for the team lead this season. She’s also a strong defender.
“She’s a pure athlete, with quickness and an ability to facilitate,” Warshaw said. “She doesn’t necessarily [have to] score goals, but she’s involved in every single offensive play. Sometimes it might just be acting as a decoy, taking their defender out of the play. We run a lot of things for her just to take [a team’s] attention somewhere else.”
Opponents usually employ their best and most athletic defenders to shadow and harass Sanchez as best they can. And they may not always use legal tactics to disrupt her. They’ll pull on the shoulder straps of her swimsuit, slash her across the arms, try to keep her swimming up and down the pool to exhaust her, sometimes even purposely take a penalty to keep her from scoring even though it can leave five defenders trying to cover six Northridge swimmers.
“Girls are just as feisty (as boys),” Sanchez said. “The worse is ‘drowning,’ someone shoving you under water. That’s something you never want but it happens. I’m being marked this year right from the get-go. I’ll hear other coaches say ‘get on 21, stay on 21.’ Their best defender will be on me from the get-go.
“I try to stay relaxed as possible the whole game, mentally stay cool the whole game. Don’t let them get into my head. Stay cool no matter where the game’s going, just stay at that even level.”
The Matadors (10-15, 0-1) are young team this season, the main core of players being freshmen and juniors. They may be a year away from being top tier, although there is still time to make a run at the Big West championship and compete for the NCAA Division I title.
Sanchez, a Cinema and Television Arts major, won’t put individual achievements ahead of team goals. And as much as she loves the sport, she is not consumed by it. Even though there are professional women’s water polo leagues overseas, she may be done playing when her college career ends next year.
“I graduate I’d pursue a career in what I learned in school rather than water polo, the sport,” she said.
Warshaw, for one, hopes she might reconsider.
“She could play overseas professionally, but has a pretty level head and a good perspective of what’s ahead in her life,” the coach said. “In my conversations with her she’s kinda in a hurry to get into the real wold and get job.
“I don’t think she’d look back and have any regrets. And she’s gonna have some records here when she leaves.”