H2O polo strives for perfect 10

The idea of a woman taking the position of head coach for the Mercer Island boys’ water polo team was foreign to many. But Lauren Ayers’ ability to lead the team was never in question last year when Mercer Island took third place at the San Diego Invitational and won its seventh consecutive Washington state title.

But Ayers will have a new challenge this season as the team will be at its youngest in nearly a decade.

“Every year the team will change, and I am really excited about the incoming classes,” said Ayers. “The younger kids will have a bigger impact on varsity.”

As many as five freshmen players could make the varsity roster for a team that hasn’t had one in nearly seven years.

“It all comes down to how we come together, having a good game plan and sticking to it,” said Ayers.

The latter was a problem for Mercer Island last year. Ayers hopes that captains Ari Wes and Sam Sussman will help keep the team on track.

“I feel like I know the game really well; I have as much experience as any one on the team,” said Sussman. “I think you have to encourage the younger kids verbally and set a good example.”

Ayers brings one big change in team motivation. Sussman said that Ayers uses positive reinforcement as opposed to the team’s previous coach, Tim Reed, who used fear. “It was just a great change of pace,” said Sussman. “There is a positive energy around her.”

Ayers is no longer in the shadow of Reed, who also coached the Washington state water polo team and was highly successful at both.

“The season hasn’t started yet but I am a lot more relaxed,” said Ayers, who admitted that there was a tremendous amount of pressure to prove herself last season.

While the state title is always a main goal, the national San Diego Invitational looms as the biggest prize. Ayers thinks the team could make it to the finals this year for the second time in the program’s history. But the tournament will be different. In years past, it has been a straight tournament format, but this year the Islanders will have to battle through a round-robin format for placing in the shortened championship brackets.

Although the Islanders’ regular season schedule doesn’t start until Tuesday, Sept. 11, none of the games will be played on Mercer Island. Facilities were only available on the Island on weekends but scheduling conflicts prevented the team from taking advantage of a home pool.

“If we play on the Island we will have to play on the weekends,” said Ayers. “That is tough on everyone. But the alternative is to play at the (King County Aquatic Center).”

And while the KCAC is a state-of-the-art facility, the players and coach miss the fan support that they get when playing on the Island.

“It makes you feel like you’re playing for your school and not the state team,” said Sussman.

No matter where the game is played, the Islanders will mark their games with Newport on the calendar in red. The Knights nearly ended the Islanders’ title streak at state last year.

“They played us tough last year, and they will be good games,” said Sussman.

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