Six seniors on the Olympia Titans girls water polo team have played year-round together since they were freshmen. For their final act, last year's state runners-up have their sights set on winning one more match.
SOUTHWEST ORANGE It was just days after the FHSAA 2016 Girls Water Polo State Championship Match last April, and the Olympia Titans were gathering back together for the first time as they prepared for club season with the Orlando Thunder — where they also play together.
Conversation inevitably turned to the state championship match, which the Titans lost to Ransom Everglades 9-6.
“It just left us hungry for more,” senior Jillian De Lisle said. “We wanted to come back and prove to ourselves that we can get it. … We realized we had to move past (the ‘what-ifs’) and realized what we had to do to get even better to possibly win the championship.”
For the program’s longtime coach, Stephanie Johnson Possell, if any group of seniors can get this team over the hump, it is this one — the Class of 2017 she affectionately calls a “goldmine.”
De Lisle, Marcela Herrera, Grace Whidden, Leila Sorrells, Claire Ewoldt and Kaley Hopegill have spent most of their high-school lives together in pursuit of excellence as part of the program.
“When they were freshmen, they said, ‘We want to do this — we want to go all the way,’” Johnson Possell said. “(To have) a group of six that work their winters, work their summers, work their offseason and do everything that they can to become the best they possibly can — you can’t ask for more than that.”
Since the FHSAA sanctioned the sport in 2005, girls water polo’s state championship has either been won by Ransom Everglades or Gulliver Prep — two South Florida programs with on-campus facilities.
That the Titans are knocking on the door as an Orlando-area program without an on-campus facility is an accomplishment in itself. Olympia commutes to the YMCA Aquatic Center on International Drive for practices during the season — a drive that can get dicey depending on traffic. When the girls are in club season, they usually practice even farther away, at Wadeview Pool in Orlando, south of downtown.
“There’s a huge advantage when you can walk on your campus and go to practice,” Johnson Possell said.
On the flip side, the extra lengths the girls for Olympia go to have, in some ways, benefitted them.
“We’re basically like sisters, because we’re together throughout the whole year,” Whidden said.
“We have a big goal this year; we all know what that goal is, but our focus every day is, ‘One possession, one game at a time.'"
— Stephanie Johnson Possell, coach
Beyond excelling in the pool, this group excels in the classroom. Hopegill has a top-10 GPA in the school’s senior class, and all six of the girls have strong GPAs.
“The time and dedication and hard work ... and the mental toughness that you need, is the same as you need in the classroom,” Johnson Possell said.
The team has seen progress each year. In 2014, the Titans made it to the state tournament for the first time. In 2015, they went farther, to the state semifinals. In 2016, they came within three points of a title.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking, because we have so much to live up to since last year,” De Lisle said.
To keep from getting bogged down in expectations, the team embraces an approach that doesn’t look too far ahead.
“We have a big goal this year; we all know what that goal is, but our focus every day is, ‘One possession, one game at a time,’” Johnson Possell said.
And wherever the Titans finish this season, the program’s veteran coach is confident her girls will be winners in life as much as they are in the pool — if not more so.
“These are unbelievable leaders — these are young women who are going to go do something with their lives,” Johnson Possell said. “To get that many all in one class … that’s special.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].