In recent years, the Gig Harbor girls water polo program has been dominant. The Tides have won three of the past four state titles, and they finished second last year when they came up a goal short against Curtis.
Most programs would be thrilled about a runner-up finish, but it was somewhat of a letdown for a program that has become accustomed to being the best in Washington.
“It was the last couple of seconds, and time was winding down,” senior standout Julia Ponce said of last year’s championship game. “It was hard to watch as a player in the pool. You’re seeing the opportunity, and you just can’t take it.”
The Tides are the gold standard statewide. Powerhouse programs have a way of sustaining success, yet perennial success creates enormous pressure to repeat.
The girls feel it.
“We did lose last year, and that was a little heartbreaking,” junior Emma Campbell said. “I think there’s even more pressure on us to really show what we’re made of this year, and kind of get it back, hopefully. I know that a lot of us just want to feel accomplished at the end of the season. Hopefully, at the end of the season, we can say we did win state.”
The team will lose a few key components due to graduation — starting goalie Hannah Anderson and Emma’s sister, Sarah Campbell, one of their most prolific scorers.
But they’ll also reload.
Ponce, who has committed to play water polo at Fresno Pacific University, will lead a talented roster that includes returning juniors Campbell and Sarah Anderson. The Tides also boast freshman Alana Ponce, Julia’s sister.
“She brings a lot of experience, even though she’s only a freshman,” head coach Mike Kelly said.
Despite losing a few key pieces and dealing with the pressure to win, Julia Ponce said the team will be successful because of the way it prepares.
“Since we’ve lost our main seniors, it’s kind of hard to think about how we’re going to do, but I know that, as a team, we work hard every single day,” Ponce said. “As long as we keep working hard every single day, I know that we can take it as far as we normally do.”
Having her sister in the pool will alleviate some of the pressure for Ponce. Alana has been playing water polo since she was 6, and the sisters played for the Olympic Development Team. Alana made it to the national team.
“She’s an all-around great defensive player, and she has a lot to offer on offense,” Julia Ponce said of her younger sister. “Just having her in the pool is going to benefit the whole team. Having her there just makes me feel comfortable.”
Laura Soares will replace Anderson at goalie. She’s seen some game action in the past during some of the games with more lopsided scores.
“For the last two years, she has gotten lots of playing time late in many of the games in the regular season, and even in the state tournament,” Kelly said. “It’s not like she’s coming in wide-eyed and having not done this before. She’s a good, solid goalie, and I look forward to her really showing everybody what talent she does have.”
It hasn’t always been state titles and dominance for the Tides.
Kelly has been the head coach since the program began in 2002. In the beginning, he had a difficult time just putting together a complete roster.
“My first year, we had 14 girls, and none of them had played before,” Kelly said. “There were already successful programs. Bainbridge Island was one of the top programs in the country at that time. Wilson and Curtis both had strong programs. There was a definite learning curve for me as a coach, as well as for the athletes.”
Kelly reflected on an Easter-weekend tournament the team played in during that first year. Fielding a competitive team was a struggle, he said.
“I had seven girls,” Kelly said. “If anyone got tired, they got to be the goalie. I had to take a timeout and put them in the goal until they got rested.”
Now, the team has 25 to 30 players.
Kelly never wavered in his belief that the Gig Harbor water polo program would grow to become successful. Despite posting losing records during the early years, the girls had fun and turned out in larger numbers each year.
Gig Harbor reached its first state tournament in 2007 and finished eighth place. The following year was the most important, Kelly said.
At practice last Thursday, the Tides watched film from that 2008 team. Kelly said it defined the program for the years to come.
“That team was really the start of the Gig Harbor type of game where you have really crushing defense, working on stealing the ball or forcing a bad shot,” Kelly said. “And then, going to a quick counter-attack and trying to catch the opponents out of position with our speed.”
With patience, Kelly and his assistant coach, Diana Litsh, have fostered one of the state’s top programs. There is no secret to their success, just hard work and a lot of conditioning, Kelly said.
“We always consider ourselves one of the best-conditioned teams when we get out there,” he said. “We want to be as strong, if not stronger, in the fourth period. In the big games, last year, you saw that that was still the case.”
The team spends the first hour and a half of each practice swimming and doing various conditioning exercises before they actually play water polo.
“It’s kind of like a swim team, and then we play some water polo at the end,” Kelly said. “The girls know it’s part of the overall package.”
The approach has produced good results, and the players believe in it.
“Obviously, our coaches play a huge part in (our success),” Anderson said. “Diana and Mike have led us to the path of success. They know what needs to happen in order to win and in order to do our best.”
Several years later, Gig Harbor has three state titles and community support.
“We get a lot of support from parents and the school district,” Anderson said. “I think that really motivates us, because we want people to be proud of us.”
If the Tides have it their way, they will hang a fourth banner in the pool at the end of the season.
“The main goal is just to work together and have a great season that we can feel accomplished about,” Campbell said. “But winning state would probably put the cherry on top.”
gig harbor water polo
March 15at Curtis9 a.m.
March 20at Lincoln3:30 p.m.
March 22Puyallup2:15 p.m.
March 24at Wilson7 p.m.
March 25Peninsula3:30 p.m.
March 27Bainbridge3:30 p.m.
April 1at Curtis4:20 p.m.
April 3Mercer Island3:30 p.m.
April 7Newport3:30 p.m.
April 8at Mt. Tahoma7 p.m.
April 10Stadium6 p.m.
April 22at Emerald Ridge3:30 p.m.
April 23Foss3:30 p.m.
April 24Enumclaw3:30 p.m.
April 25Lincoln3:30 p.m.
May 1Curtis7:20 p.m.
May 2at Foss4:30 p.m.
May 6Mt. Tahoma3:30 p.m.
May 8at Stadium6 p.m.
May 9at Peninsula3:30 p.m.