PALO ALTO, Calif. -- When UC San Diego head coach Brad Kreutzkamp was looking for a leader for this year’s team, he got it from a very unlikely source.

Junior Laurel Kistler hadn’t even started her previous two years, but with four starters graduating from the previous season’s team, she got her chance.

What she did has surprised both coach and player. Kistler leads the Tritons in several categories, including goals, assists, steals and field blocks. She is also second in ejections drawn.

“Laurel has been all-everything for us this year,” Kreutzkamp said. “She came in last year as kind of a role player but this year really stepped up and leads our team in scoring, plays back-up 2-meter defense for us and is a real leader out there."

2015 NC Women's Water Polo Championship
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Kistler has managed to score 64 goals while having the added responsibility of guarding the opponent's best player.

“We put her on the other team’s best player every time we play so we would be nowhere this year without her,” Kreutzkamp said. “She’s calm and she’s collected and she is a leader not necessarily with her voice but with her actions. She’s been invaluable for us.”

Not bad for someone Kreutzkamp hadn’t even tapped as a starter until she was two years into the program.

“She came into this program and we were told left and right she couldn’t shoot, she can’t score,” Kreutzkamp said. “Here she is in her junior year and she is leading the team in scoring. I am happy she is proving everyone wrong.”

Kistler attributes her new-found scoring prowess to a change in philosophy.

“So much has happened this year coming off not starting to starting I had to come in with a different attitude,” Kistler said. “Coming from club teams I always was a defensive-minded player. Coming into this program you have to be an all-around player and I didn’t really make that shift in the beginning. I feel like this year I did more of that.”

Also the previous two years Kistler had a lot of talented teammates and maybe felt a little intimidated.

“We had a really talented team last year so we had so many players I didn’t really get a chance,” Kistler said. “This year I feel like I got a chance to prove what I can do and have this freedom to play and make mistakes. I’ve always been hesitant to do that in the past.”

Her teammates have noticed a change in her demeanor in the water.

“I know for a fact her as an individual is good at turning around any tough or bad thing that happens,” UC San Diego goalie Courtney Miller said. “She takes beatings in there and you can see it on her face and then she is right back at it. She has the most positive attitude on our team and I think that stems from one player like helping everyone else to turn around as well.”

That mindset and Kistler's play this year completely caught her coach off guard.

“I’m sure we have had players like her and I wish I could tell you she’s one of a kind, but she has definitely stepped in and filled voids,” Kreutzkamp said. “I didn’t expect it from her. I expected to continue what she had been doing, assists, swimming and defense.”

It is her defense that Kistler believes has spurred her offense.

“I feel like I’ve had this foundation with my defensive play and I started getting in this comfortable shooting motion,” Kistler said. “When we play 6 on 5 I am at the one and that’s where my goals have been coming from. My teammates have really helped me as well get in places to have scoring opportunities. I agree, my defense has really helped my offense. Thankfully I’ve been able to have speed to help me counterattack when others are tired. I think it has really come together this year.”

While she is enjoying the last two games of her junior season, Kistler is excited for the future.

“I’m really looking forward to next year,” Kistler said. “We have a lot of freshmen coming in that are really talented so it will be interesting to see how they fit with the people that are returning.”