Sports

Regaining that state-title edge girls water polo reloads

By Matt Phelps' email='Matt.Phelps@mi-reporter.com

Last year was the first time in seven years that the Washington state girls water polo trophy wasn't engraved with Mercer Island. The six-year run that saw the Islanders as the most dominant team in the state, ended with a fourth-place finish at the state tournament. This year's team is determined to write a new page in the history books.

"This group understands that we need to change," said Mercer Island High School girls water polo coach Jeff Lowell. "We were not in great shape at the end of last year and we just got out-hustled."

The team will look to seniors Sara Boehler, Ashley Sturgis, Katie Hall and juniors Rea Rosenblatt-Hood and Danielle Welch to lead the team back to the state finals this season.

"We can't take a week off," said Lowell. "All the girls have to ask themselves what they can do to make the team better."

The Islanders will have some major positions to fill, including goalkeeper.

Caity Connolly was the net minder the past four seasons.

"She was huge for us and almost impossible for us to replace," said Sturgis.

Her skills were some of the best in the state. Lowell said that three or four players have the ability to play goalkeeper, but it will be tough to replace Connolly. "There was too much pressure on her," said Lowell. "We need to improve our overall defense."

Boehler echoed those sentiments: "We have four girls with a lot of potential in goal, but we need to stick to fundamentals and bring our defense as a whole back to the top of its game to take pressure off the keeper."

The Islanders also lost Krissey Orkney to graduation on offense.

"Everyone is just going to have to step up," said Sturgis. "We have some great players but we need to build up our bench so we are not just depending on the starters."

Lowell said that talent is not a problem for this team, but they will have to work hard to achieve their goals.

"A work bench only looks pretty if the tools are all sharpened and polished," said Lowell.

The Islanders have many weapons on offense.

"We should have six kids that we can get consistent offense from," said Lowell.

With the string broken last year, Lowell said that: "It is important for them to go out and create their own identity."

The fact of the matter, though, is that with this team there are not as many girls playing year round in water polo as in the past. But Lowell said that if the team plays together the team can overcome most of the problems they may face.

In past years the girls water polo team was a lock to make the state finals.

But the skill level of other teams has risen in recent years making for better games and competition. Within the 3A KingCo schools the Islanders will face tough opponents in Bellevue and Newport.

On the state level, the Islanders biggest opponents this season will be Bainbridge Island, who was the dominant team before the Islander run, and Shorewood. Curtis High School, which has traditionally been a big opponent for the Islanders, could be a dark horse.

"We can play with any of them," said Lowell. "I think they are all excited for the challenge but athletics are supposed to fun too."

But winning back the state title is on every players mind.

Info box Head coach: Jeff Lowell (seventh year at MIHS, over all record 138-18 -- six state titles)

Assistant coach: Eric Bartleson and Mike Goldstein.

Last year's record: overall 25-4, fourth at state.

Key athletes: Sr. Sara Boehler, Sr. Ashley Sturgis, Jr. Danielle Welch, Jr.

Kayley Hall and Jr. Rae Rosenblatt-Hood.

Top newcomers: too early to tell.

Key losses: Krissy Orkney (2-meter/offense), Julie Chung (driver) and Caity Connolly (goalie).

Key games: Bainbridge, Newport and Curtis tournament.

Next home game: Tuesday, March 22 vs. Kentridge.

Key to a good season: Play together as a group.

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