Two of Gig Harbor High School’s best girls water polo players will be continuing their water polo careers at the next level.
Seniors Alana Ponce and Olivia Lott are signees of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, respectively.
Lott, who has emerged as one of the state’s top goalies over the past two seasons, had contacted the Cougars’ head coach multiple times to express interest in attending the private school near Los Angeles.
“It’s a pretty strong program,” Lott said. “I like the area a lot — I wanted to go to California. My (Christian) faith is a big part of me. I wanted to keep that going in college.”
Attending a Christian school was a big factor for Lott.
“I’d say it’s probably the biggest deal,” Lott said. “I’ve grown up in church all my life. I couldn’t really imagine not continuing that in my college education. I wanted to be connected with a church with the same values. Faith is really embedded there.”
Azusa Pacific is a Division II program that competes in the Golden Coast Conference for women’s water polo. Its members include Fresno Pacific University, San Diego State University and others.
“They do pretty well,” Lott said. “The girls are really nice. I like the coach and the plans. She had a really good sense of the direction of the team.”
While Lott has faced good competition as part of the Olympic Development Program, along with Ponce, competition at the high school level is scarce in Washington. Lott said she’s excited for the chance to challenge herself with more top-tier players.
“I’m really excited,” Lott said. “Going into college, having one-on-one training with a goalie coach will definitely help me. You always grow when you’re being challenged.”
Lott, who plans to study philosophy in college, said she’s grateful for all the help and guidance Gig Harbor High School head coach Mike Kelly has given her over the years.
“I think we’re blessed with the best coach in the Northwest area,” Lott said. “(Kelly) has a lot of knowledge and he knows how to take players from nothing and make them to something. I wasn’t able to tread water my freshman year. Now I’m going to play college water polo. It’s kind of unreal.”
Ponce, a star forward and goal-scorer for the Tides, will be taking a different path on a different coast, signing with George Washington after careful deliberation.
“I took a trip out there and fell in love with it,” Ponce said.
Ponce had been in touch with one of the George Washington assistants, David Carson, who had previously coached at Wilson High School in Tacoma. Ponce took visits to the University of Michigan and the University of Pacific before deciding on GWU.
“Comparing it to those other places — those are really intense water polo programs,” Ponce said. “With George Washington, I knew I’d get a chance to play and start all four years. That was important to me. And I’m going to a college to play water polo but also to get a really good education at a prestigious university.”
Ponce, like Lott, is excited for a chance to challenge herself at the next level.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of competition here. I’m always thinking about what it’s going to be like. I’m a little scared. I don’t think I’ll match up well in my freshman year. It’s something I’ll have to work on. I’ll have a good group of girls behind my back at GW.”
Ponce credited Kelly for helping her grow into a strong water polo player.
“Mike is basically like my second father,” Ponce said. “He definitely pushed me to be the player that I am today. It’s not the highest level in this state but he knows what he’s talking about. When he tells me to work on my follow through, or just tweaking every little thing, that has definitely helped me. It can be a little frustrating sometimes. But he looks out for me.”
Ponce plans to study science at GWU and become a dentist someday. Lott, Ponce and the Tides will go for another state title this season. Gig Harbor is the favorite to win the title once again in the spring.