Gateway: Sports

New coach Burkey hopes to stabilize Peninsula water polo program

It has been a revolving door for the Peninsula High School girls water polo coaching position over the past few years.

But the newest hire, 2008 PHS grad Milissa Burkey, is hoping to bring some stability to the struggling program. Burkey, 25, played water polo and swam all four years for the Seahawks.

“The job just opened up,” Burkey said. “I had always wanted to come back and coach here. They’re in a transition, building year. I feel very confident with my skills teaching foundational polo and starting with the basics. The timing just worked out really well. I’m happy to be home.”

Burkey, a program coordinator for Community Inclusion, a nonprofit, will have the opportunity to work from the ground up. The team is comprised of mostly underclassmen with little playing experience.

“On the first day of practice, seven out of my 10 girls had never even seen a water polo game,” Burkey said. “Let alone learn how to control the ball, swim, draw a foul — all those things. The first two weeks are the hardest. You get a lot of information thrown at you. I’m excited for them to be comfortable as players.”

One of the few players that returns with experience is sophomore Shayla Zartman, who plays club water polo with a lot of the girls on the state-championship Gig Harbor High School team. Zartman said she believes getting Burkey will help the program bounce back.

“She’s very easy to relate to and she’s a great teacher,” Zartman said.

Zartman, who played center for the JV basketball team in the winter, uses her basketball skills in the pool.

“It’s a lot of aggressiveness, getting position on your girl and then going towards the basket or the cage,” Zartman said. “That kind of correlated into water polo.”

Getting girls to even turn out for the team has been an issue in the past. Participation is already up from a year ago, and Burkey’s vibrant personality figures to draw more girls into the program.

“I’m really big on promoting, being in the school and being accessible so that people who are interested have a chance to come talk to me,” Burkey said. “Also, coordinating with coaches whose sports translate well, like soccer and basketball — pulling from those sports. I think that polo is kind of a funny sport; once you get going, you really get hooked.

“Once that hook sets, (it’s about) just having a positive environment where people enjoy coming to practice and enjoy playing. I think that’s what builds a program and that’s what brings people in.”

For now, Burkey and the team aren’t too worried about winning games. Zartman said she just hopes to see improvement throughout the year.

“I just want to have fun this season,” Zartman said. “This is a good year to learn and build that foundation so next year and the year after that we have a better team. Me personally, I just want to be a better leader for this team and help them succeed and show them why I love the sport so they’ll love it, too.”