Gateway: Sports

Gig Harbor, Peninsula water polo put aside rivalry to grow sport

Sometimes Gig Harbor High School’s crosstown rivalry with Peninsula High School can be hostile and bitter. Football’s annual Fish Bowl, in particular, has a reputation for bringing out some nastiness between the rival schools. But Gig Harbor water polo coach Mike Kelly doesn’t have much interest in that element of the rivalry.

With another new coach at the helm of the Peninsula girls water polo program, 25-year-old Milissa Burkey, and a young, inexperienced roster, the Seahawks’ first scheduled game against state champion Gig Harbor looked daunting.

So Burkey and Kelly agreed to make the game an unofficial exhibition, designed to integrate the young Seahawks team into a friendly scrimmage and teach the game, rather than crush them in their first taste of the sport. For the first quarter, the Seahawks just watched the Tides scrimmage, watching and learning how the game is played. After that, Peninsula players were split between the two teams, playing alongside and against Gig Harbor’s more experienced players.

"We’re using this as a learning opportunity instead of a moment that’s going to discourage my girls who are just learning," Burkey said. "The water polo community is pretty tight-knit. A lot of the coaches are committed to building it back to what it used to be. However we can help each other out to do that is awesome."

Kelly wanted the game to be a positive experience and help grow the sport in the community.

"I started (coaching) at Peninsula," Kelly said. "We’re a pretty small community. I don’t like the divisiveness that is sometimes promoted by people in the community. Their program has kind of been in decline, but they were third at state one time. So that’s the opposite direction of what you’d want to see. We want people to enjoy the sport and just give exposure to water polo and show everyone it’s a fun game to participate in as well as watch."

Instead of practicing last weekend, the Peninsula team headed over the bridge to watch Gig Harbor play in a jamboree at Curtis High School. Seven out of the 10 players on Peninsula’s roster had never even seen a live water polo game, so Burkey wanted the team to start becoming familiar with the game. Peninsula sophomore Shayla Zartman, one of the few Peninsula players on the roster with playing experience, said the collaboration with the Tides should help the program.

"Coach Mike is just a really good coach," Zartman said. "The fact that he’s been here for so long, that consistency with the girls, and the fact that he’s had people’s older sisters, and then has the siblings come through. If we get something like that going at Peninsula High School, I think that’ll be a good thing."

Burkey hopes to emulate some of Kelly’s coaching tactics into her program as well.

"I love the way Mike has a very chill coaching style," Burkey said. "For girls that are just learning, he teaches them the foundational skills and then lets them figure out how they’re going to be their best player, what’s going to work for them. He keeps a really fun atmosphere. The intensity is definitely there and the girls work hard. I want to make sure this is there for them to enjoy themselves."