One of Mike Kelly’s biggest water polo stars at Gig Harbor High School has returned to the Tides’ swimming pool.
Julia Ponce, who’s entering her junior year at Fresno Pacific University in California, is coaching the boys 18U Narrows water polo club team, along with Harrison Oak, the coach of the Gig Harbor High boys water polo team.
Being given the opportunity to come back and ease into it with this experience has been really awesome.
Julia Ponce, Narrows 18U boys water polo coach
“It’s been really good,” Ponce said. “I’m really glad that I’ve been given this opportunity to come back to the area. I’m coming back from college and this is something I want to pursue in my future. Being given the opportunity to come back and ease into it with this experience has been really awesome.”
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For Kelly, having a former star return to the pool to mentor current high schoolers — whether boys or girls — is a huge benefit to the program.
“I would be a fool not to encourage her to come coach,” Kelly said. “She’s done a great job. The boys still have a lot of things they need to catch up on. She’s bringing some of that new knowledge from college, which has been a great benefit to them. She’s really enjoying and embracing that new role as a coach.”
Ponce has served as an assistant for Kelly in the late spring, helping coach the Lady Tides water polo team, which includes her younger sister, Alana — possibly the state of Washington’s best high school water polo player. Ponce still plays water polo in college and has a wealth of experience to draw from.
The athletes respect (Ponce). They know her contributions to Gig Harbor, and she’s still playing in college. She’s really good on the technical aspects of water polo.
Mike Kelly, Narrows 18U girls water polo coach
“She’s really good at communicating the technical aspects when she’s leading drills — she has that experience of ‘been there, done that,’” Kelly said. “There’s things that, if I said it, the guys would still be talking and stuff. But the athletes respect her. They know her contributions to Gig Harbor, and she’s still playing in college. She’s really good on the technical aspects of water polo.”
Teaching technique is Ponce’s strong suit. But the technique she’s mastered doesn’t necessarily come easy for the players she teaches. She’s learning how to get through to them.
“I like to work on a lot of technique, a lot of drill work,” Ponce said. “It gets confusing sometimes. I’ve had to learn from those experiences. I grow as a coach from that. That’s the whole reason I like coaching — I’m figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”
NARROWS TEAMS GEARING UP FOR JUNIOR OLYMPICS
Both the 18U boys and girls Narrows water polo teams will head down to Palo Alto, California at the end of July for this year’s Junior Olympics competition. Each competition features 96 teams, split into two groups. The top 48 teams in the country go into the “championship” bracket, while teams 49 through 96 go into the “classic” bracket.
The 18U girls are competing in the championship bracket, while the boys will compete in the classic bracket.
“They may win some and lose some, but we go there to gain experience,” Kelly said. “You can’t go to any one event where you’ll get more experience. We play a lot of the California teams, have played teams from Texas, Florida, Illinois; we run into teams from Oregon and Washington as well. It’s a phenomenal experience. We’ve taken kids that were borderline JV or varsity players and the next year, they’re starting. It’s always an exciting time to see some of the elite players in the country. Many national team players come up through this program.”
The boys had a tough time last year, losing all eight of their games. But for Gig Harbor High School senior-to-be Bobby Banks, it was a valuable learning experience.
It’s a whole different breed of water polo. They play a lot more violent; it’s a lot faster paced.
Bobby Banks, Gig Harbor High senior
“The big thing we learned is it’s really different to play down there,” Banks said. “It’s a whole different breed of water polo. They play a lot more violent; it’s a lot faster paced.”
Kelly, Oak and Ponce relish the learning opportunity for the players to become more assertive and play with more of a purpose.
“There were a couple games they could’ve won if they were a little more focused,” Kelly said. “It made them hungry. It was a great improvement.”
Regardless of coming out the event with zero wins a year ago, the tournament seemed to help the general trajectory of the Gig Harbor High program, which draws a lot of its talent from the Narrows program. The Tides took fifth in state a season ago and have been rapidly improving over the course of the last several years.
“We can bring that back into high school and really focus on what we need to do to get better for Junior Olympics and get better for the high school season,” Banks said.
The 18U girls will be coached by Kelly. Last year, they ended up in the middle of the pack out of the 96 teams in the tournament.