In the opening minutes of Saturday night’s state title water polo game against Curtis High, Gig Harbor looked disheveled and rattled.
Curtis, the team which handed the Tides their only loss of the season, came out swinging, but the Tides, with all their experience, talent and training, kept their poise and played their game.
That patience eventually paid off, as Gig Harbor rallied in the second half to claim a 15-8 victory at the Curtis High pool, earning the program’s fourth title in five years.
After trailing 3-0 early, with three seconds left in the half, freshman Alana Ponce launched the ball from half pool and it somehow found the back of the net, tying the game at 5-5 and seizing the momentum for good.
“It’s like putting your tongue on the end of a jumper cable,” Gig Harbor head coach Mike Kelly said of Ponce’s goal. “In a big game like this, it really electrified the team and it let them know that they could play with Curtis. There’s always some doubts, when you lose your last game to them on a close one.”
At halftime, the Tides went outside and regrouped.
“We talked and we just breathed fresh air and we just said that we have faith in each other,” said junior Emma Campbell, who scored five goals for Gig Harbor. “We talked to each other and said we just needed to fight for it. And that’s what we did, we fought for it.”
The third quarter was a defensive battle, and Gig Harbor junior goalie Laura Soares won the battle, limiting the Vikings to only one goal.
“The goalie is probably the key player of the team,” Kelly said. “They tend to be the smartest girls and the most tenacious, to have someone throwing balls at you all the time. She upped her game. She always seems to pick it up for the big games.”
After three quarters, Gig Harbor led, 7-6. In the fourth quarter, the Tides offense exploded, running away with the game. For the Tides, who lost to Curtis in last year’s state title game, there was redemption.
“It feels amazing, especially after last year,” Campbell said. “I knew we wanted to come back and win it. I wanted to win it for my sister and myself and my teammates who couldn’t last year, and I’m just glad that I did that for them.”
Senior Julia Ponce, who has committed to play water polo at Fresno Pacific University, was named the state tournament’s offensive MVP. Ponce also had the special opportunity to share her final state title with her younger sister, Alana, an experience she won’t soon forget.
“I won for Alana, and my coaches and my team and my fans,” Ponce said. “Doing it with Alana is just amazing. That feeling at the end of the game when we won — I gave her a huge hug. That’s the last time I’ll ever play with her, it was just amazing.”
Gig Harbor is in the midst of a remarkable stretch of winning, as the Tides have now won four out of the last five state titles.
“It just means that I have student-athletes that believe in the program, they’re willing to put in the long, hard work,” Kelly said. “They’re willing to play 24, 25 games in a season and still manage to be some of the smartest kids at the school. They have to balance their academics with their athletics. It’s a great tradition at Gig Harbor.”
The team trains like a swim team, putting in at least an hour of swimming work before even touching the ball. Kelly attributes the team’s success to their commitment to the system. Everyone buys in.
“As new freshman come in, they’re educated that you don’t get to the top by coming in and not working hard at every practice,” Kelly said.
While most of Gig Harbor’s games this year were blowouts, the Tides remained focused and believed in the system that has produced so much success.
“The girls that we had this year really committed themselves to working hard at every practice, challenging themselves and getting in the games and playing at the level that they know they can play instead of dropping down and playing at the level of other teams,” Kelly said.
High school water polo in the state of Washington is not yet a sport sanctioned by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association.