This Wednesday three girls water polo teams from the Puget Sound Aquatics club begin play in the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics at local high schools in Orange County, Calif.
In addition to the program’s 18U and 14U squads, the Puget Sound Water Polo 16U team, featuring a quartet of Auburn Mountainview sophomores-to-be Amelia Portin, Katelyn Cooper, Katie Craft and Autumn Hildebrandt – will compete for a national title.
“Usually we get a team to qualify every year, but this is the first time we’re taking three girls teams down,” 16U head coach Megan Ernst said. “It’s exciting being able to expand and take that many kids.”
The team qualified for the Junior Olympics by taking second-place at the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii Zone Regional qualifiers May 1-3 in Salem, Ore.
Not bad for a team bristling with new players fresh from high school season who had yet to play together as a team, Ernst said.
“Because high school girls water polo is in the spring and qualifiers are in the spring, it makes it hard because the girls haven’t really trained together,” Ernst said. “They train with their high schools but not with their teams. But we went down to Oregon and they played really, really well.”
The team won three matches at the regional qualifiers, one by shootout, another by a one-point margin.
“It was so stressful,” Ernst said. “You don’t want to call a timeout at the wrong time, you don’t want to substitute someone out who is on a roll. I just try to put myself in the water.”
For goalie Katelyn Cooper, who played goalkeeper for Auburn Mountainview as a freshman this past year, the team’s success at the tourney was gratifying.
“We were all really nervous trying to figure out where we all fit in together,” Cooper said. “Winning three of the games was exciting, we all played well together. It felt really good to get second place with a team that had never played together.”
Katie Craft, Cooper’s teammate on the Puget Sound Aquatics and Lion water polo squads, agreed:
“It was difficult at first, but the next few games we got used to playing together and won a few games,” Craft said. “I think we did pretty well for playing together for the first time.”
Although the Puget Sound 16U team features players from other local high schools, such as Curtis and Lakes, the Auburn Mountainview additions have been crucial, according to Ernst.
“They’re great, they have a lot of potential,” Ernst said. “Our goalie is Katelyn, so it’s nice to have her. She works so hard. I think her mom takes notes during the game so she can improve. It’s nice to have kids who want to learn, not just come to practice to check off the box for the day. The parents are super supportive of them, and that’s so important.”
Equally important has been the Lion players’ eagerness to integrate into their club team.
“That can be hard because often you want to just hang with your friends and the people you know,” Ernst said. “But they aren’t like that, they’re friendly with everybody. That really helps.”
“It’s easy because Coach Wally (board member and coach Mike Wallen) assigns the hotel rooms when we travel,” Cooper said. “He makes sure we’re not rooming with the same people.”
Now the team has to build on the team unity to make its presence felt at the National Junior Olympics.
No easy task, Ernst said.
“Once you go to California and play, there are girls that are 6-foot and 16U,” Ernst said. “If you can go down there and play, you can compete up here. You go down wanting to win, but it’s much more competitive. Every high school has a beautiful, 50-meter pool in an aquatic complex, with bleachers and concession stands. They’re all well cared for and have the best equipment. It’s more of a big sport down there. But that’s how you get better, playing better competition. That’s why it’s nice to take the girls down there.”
For Cooper, the team’s prospects in California bring on the butterflies.
“I’m nervous, but really excited for the challenge,” Cooper said. “We’ll definitely be playing tougher teams because they practice way more than teams up here. But I think we’ll do pretty well. We work well together and want to do well.”
Craft, too, was confident in her team’s ability to step it up.
“I’m excited,” Craft said. “I don’t really mind as long as we go in as a team and do our best and think that we can win. Sometimes you go in thinking you’re going to lose and that’s bad and affects the game. I’m just going in thinking we can win.”
The National Junior Olympics Water Polo tournament runs July 29-Aug. 2 at various high school pools in Orange County, Calif. For more information visit usawaterpolo.org