When I arrived at the Gateway in August 2010, I had never seen a game of water polo in my life.
It was quite an adjustment stepping in and covering the Gig Harbor and Peninsula high school matches the following spring, but I quickly found the sport to be enjoyable, fast-paced and easy to follow. The rules aren't dissimilar from soccer and hockey, two sports I'm very familiar with.
While I wouldn't call myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination, I've gotten comfortable with the terminology of water polo. More importantly, I've gotten familiar with the girls that comprise the two local teams. And, as the game continues to grow and improve in Washington, it's something that will keep seeing more publicity in our pages.
We'll be publishing our annual water polo preview in Wednesday's print issue. Gig Harbor, which has appeared in the last five state-title games, will be shooting for its fourth straight championship. The Tides have the goods to do it thanks to the return of several talented veterans like Julia Ponce, Sarah Campbell, Shae Purdue and Hannah Anderson.
Peninsula, meanwhile, will try to return to state for the second straight year. The Seahawks placed eighth in 2012, and they've got a couple quality returning returning players in Gabby Wiltse and Elizabeth Walther. Peninsula will likely benefit, too, from the addition of coach Chelsea Laning, a former standout collegiate player.
Here's a look at what the Tides and Seahawks have to offer as the 2013 season got underway this week:
It’s been a remarkable three-year run for the seniors on this year’s Gig Harbor High girls water polo team.
They’ve amassed a 65-3 record, which included a 46-game winning streak, and three consecutive state championships. Barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, they’ll be favored to capture their fourth straight title at the May 18 championship game at Curtis High in University Place.
“It’s my final year, and it’s kind of bittersweet already that it’s my fourth year,” Sarah Campbell said. “But I’m really excited for the possibility for a fourth state title, so we’ll be working hard and, hopefully, we’ll end up with something good.”
There aren’t many subtractions from last season’s squad that finished 22-1, as Elyanna McCullough was the only graduating senior.
However, the Tides lost a few other key contributors who moved out of the area, including Ale Rios, Noelle Oppenhuizen, and sisters Chloe and Chanel Long.
Head coach Mike Kelly thinks there won’t be much upheaval as Julia Ponce returns for her junior season. She’s the state tournament’s two-time Offensive MVP and scored a school-record 118 goals in 2012.
Ponce has plenty of support in defensive stalwart Campbell, two-way threat Shae Purdue and all-state goalkeeper Hannah Anderson.
The Tides have a few first-year players who should contribute, including junior Kailee Drugge and freshmen Lindsey Moon and Sierra Coalson.
Many of the players have been working through the offseason with the newly-formed Narrows Aquatic Association, which replaced the Gig Harbor Water Polo Club.
“This is probably the best-looking team I’ve seen as far as the start of the season and where they are with their conditioning and their knowledge of the game,” Kelly said.
Sophomores Emma Campbell and Sarah Anderson are expected to have bigger roles this season.
“They’ve been playing club water polo and went to the (Junior Olympics) over the summer, and continued to pick that up right after the girls’ swim season,” the coach said.
Gig Harbor typically has a stout defense, but Hannah Anderson has also bailed them out with key saves during their state-tournament matches. She’ll share the captain’s duties with Purdue and Sarah Campbell.
“Over the course of the past four years, I’ve learned to be a lot more vocal with my teammates,” Anderson said. “You can see everything that’s going on in the pool, and something I’ve been working on is being vocal and telling my players where I need them to be in order for them to do their job better.”
This year’s state tourney figures to be more challenging, as Seattle-area schools like Mercer Island, Bellevue, Inglemoor and Bainbridge can qualify for the event.
“You definitely have to keep pushing yourself and, as coaches, we continue to remind them that there’s a target on their backs and we’re the team to beat,” Kelly said.
SEAHAWKS GROWING UNDER NEW COACH LANING
Across town at Peninsula High, the Seahawks are working with a much smaller squad than Gig Harbor, but they proved depth isn’t everything last year when they won the South Sound wild-card tournament and finished eighth at state.
A big change came in the offseason in the form of new coach Chelsea Laning, whose résumé includes a decorated playing career. She was a two-time collegiate All-American at California State-Monterey Bay.
She’s drawing praise from her players after the opening two weeks of training.
“Chelsea is really emphasizing learning new drills and teaching the girls how to understand and maneuver their bodies in the pool,” said senior Elizabeth Walther. “We’re getting a really good feel for the basics that we need to build up on this season.”
Peninsula will have to find ways to replace some quality seniors who graduated last spring, including Adrienne Storey, Miranda Bessex and goalie Madison Spencer.
Tara Price, a sophomore, will get a chance between the pipes to start the season.
“She’s been really enthuasistic about training,” Walther said, “and she’s really excited to get in the goal this year and fill in the spot that Madison left.”
Gabby Wiltse, a junior, returns at the crucial hole set position, and should be one of the team’s top goal-scoring threats. She’s hoping last season’s success isn’t short-lived.
“It didn’t really take us by surprise because all of us were so determined last year,” Wiltse said of reaching state. “I don’t think we’d gone to state since the seniors’ freshman year, and I think all of us just had the passion, the determination, to finally do that one more time.”
Peninsula’s practices have been intensely focused on conditioning, Walther said, and that’s especially important for a team that may have only two or three substitutes per game.
“Everyone is really uplifting and having fun, but you can tell everyone is working really hard,” Walther said.