Gateway: Sports

5 years ago, it was a struggle to field a full team. Now Peninsula High’s water polo program is thriving

When Milissa Burkey took over the Peninsula High School girls water polo program five years ago, the situation looked bleak.

It was a struggle to even get 10 or so girls to come out for the team.

“Year one, I had one girl who had even seen the sport before,” Burkey said.

So Burkey was tasked not only with reversing the plummeting participation numbers, but also with teaching nearly the entire varsity team the basics of the game.

The outlook is much brighter now: There are 25 girls on this year’s team, many of whom are returning players from last year’s team. By all accounts, the program is in a good place.

“It’s grown a ton,” Burkey said. “Every year, we’ve consistently gotten bigger and bigger,” Burkey said. “We’ve tried really hard to make sure we’re running a positive program, where but they’re also enjoying their time and learning to love the sport.”

Burkey said the emphasis on fostering a fun environment and cultivating a love for the sport has been the biggest reason for the program’s positive trajectory.

“To be here to see the girls who have aged through and see them walk away with the love of the sport that I have, that’s all I’ve ever wanted,” Burkey said.

Senior winger Madi Willson said the program’s uptick in participation has to do with Burkey, and also the community the players have built.

“We’ve been able to encourage newer players to come out for the team,” Willson said. “Just making relationships and having a community is such a big part of it. Just making friendships and bringing people in.”

This year’s team, which competes in the Division II West of South Puget Sound water polo — alongside South Kitsap, Lakes, Wilson, Stadium, Lincoln and Bainbridge — returns plenty of talent. In addition to Willson, key returners are senior point Ellie Coberly and senior hole set Allison Dorny, who scored 15 goals in the team’s first two games of the season against South Kitsap and Wilson.

“Our team communicates really well,” Dorny said, deflecting credit. “We work on passing a lot, making it more of a team effort, rather than just one person. We all work really well together and push each other to do our best all the time.”

Willson said this year’s team is balanced with a strong offense and defense.

“We’re able to adapt to whoever we play,” she said. “Our offense is amazing and our defense works really hard, too. We’ve gotten a lot better at communicating on the water, being able to execute things. Being able to talk to each other in the water and just fluidly work together.”

The water polo leagues in the area were restructured in the offseason with the goal of creating more balanced divisions. Peninsula was put into Division II, competing alongside schools of similar skill level.

“It’s been nice,” Dorny said. “We play teams that are more on our level. It’s more of an even split. It makes it more competitive, more fun.”

More than anything, Peninsula’s players take a special pride in seeing the program’s organic growth, and hope the pattern will continue in the years to come, even after they graduate.

“All of us really advocate for it because we all really love the team,” Dorny said. “So we just try to get girls to play. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t know anything. I didn’t know anything when I started. If you don’t even know how to swim. I didn’t do swim team. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, everyone helps you get into it. It’s more of a fun thing.”