Don’t jinx this.
That’s what Bainbridge High School varsity boys water polo team Head Coach Kristin Gellert keeps telling herself, anyway.
Still, it’s hard not to be excited.
“We’re looking really strong,” she said. “And doing things better than we were doing them at the end of last season in just the first week of this season.”
That’s no small boast. Last year’s team was good, and the year was good to them in return.
The boys from Bainbridge went 2-for-2 at the 2016 Washington State Boys Water Polo Championship at Curtis High School in November and claimed the fifth-place spot in the tournament, ending a stellar season which saw the varsity team enter the postseason with a flawless 8-0 conference record and the top spot in their league.
And there’s no reason at all, Gellert said, this year couldn’t be even better.
“I’m really excited by our potential,” she said. “They know it, and I was a little nervous they might take it for granted … but they are working really hard for it. They have really high goals and they’re doing everything we ask of them and more.”
Time will tell, of course.
And the Spartans don’t have much to play with. Their first match is slated for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5 on the road against Bellevue.
Their first home match, though, is not until 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, against Gig Harbor — four matches and two tournaments later.
Gellert is returning for her seventh year with the program, her fifth year as head coach. It is her third consecutive year in charge, having left the program for a time in the middle. Since returning, she spent two years helming the JV squad, and the next three leading the varsity team.
It’s actually an even bigger deal than it sounds.
“This year marks the first time a coach has been here for a third year in over a decade,” Gellert said. “I think the timing of practice is tough when you have a family or want a social life — or both. And different families coming through that are harder to deal with.”
Last year’s fifth-place finish only whet the team’s appetite for success, Gellert said, liking peeking in the window of a restaurant you can’t afford. This year’s squad, though, gets the best of both words, she explained, as previous performances have made them respected — if not exactly feared.
“Finishing fifth out of eight at state, we’re still the top of the bottom,” she said. “So we’re still a little bit of an underdog, but we’re on people’s radar. Which, I think, is right where we want to be.”
Victory begets victory, Gellert said, especially with the way things are set up in the Spartans’ league, and if the team is to have a serious shot at state, they must repeat the past.
“I never ask the team for perfection, but it would be cool to go undefeated in our league again and come out first in the league,” she said. “[That] would put us in a really good spot for regionals, and our regionals is a weaker bracket, which would put us in a really good spot for state.
“The planets are trying to align,” she laughed. “Hopefully, we can stick with that, what’s being sort of set up for us here.”
Standing in the way of that magical conjunction are some of the toughest water polo squads around, in one of the most competitive leagues in the state.
Who are the Spartanssneaking sideways glances at?
“I think they know who the challenges will be,” Gellert said.
Bellevue, certainly, will be among the top contenders, the coach said.
“They were second last year, but they know what we have. We’ve been playing their club team. They know what our club team has had. They know not to take us lightly.”
Mercer Island, the team that finished third last year, is another perennially powerful opponent.
And, of course, Curtis, who placed first in the league last year, is bound to be trying.
“Gig Harbor is always a challenge,” Gellert added. “They’re in our league, and that’s like a really friendly rivalry.”
Far back as the Gig Harbor relationship may go, the coach said other teams are finally waking up to the very real threat Bainbridge poses in the league.
“It’s pretty fun being in the position that we’re in right now because we’re being invited to tournaments that we weren’t invited to before, because we’ve had success,” she said. “So we’re given more opportunities to get better, because we’ve gotten better.
“Even at the end of last season,” Gellert added, “coaches were coming up to me at state saying, ‘Whooo, better watch out for Bainbridge!’ I’m like, ‘You better believe it.’”
Only 10 players have so far nabbed spots on the varsity squad, Gellert said, after she set the initial standards so high, hoping to encourage a little internal competition for the five remaining prime spots.
The entire squad boasts 25 Spartans. There are only three seniors on the varsity squad, one on JV, and only one junior on varsity, with another one on JV. The rest are underclassmen.
Sam Kapel, Will Thompson and Miles Hogger are the team’s co-captains this season.
“They do work well together,” Gellert said of the trio. “They’re friends in and out of the pool. They each have a different role that they bring to the team, not just as captains, but in playing.”
Kapel is “really, really creative and he wants to score the ball at any cost,” Gellert said.
Thompson “will work harder than anybody will work in a game to make sure that that ball doesn’t go in the goal.”
Hogger, though, is a bit of a wild card, the coach said.
“And by wild, I mean capital W wild,” Gellert laughed. “He’s so strong, really fast. He’s just this burst of lightning. He won’t last the whole quarter, but when he’s in, he’s there and he’s so strong.”
The team is also led by returning Assistant Coach Cooper Rooks, another conversation subject that receives high praise from the head coach.
“Cooper and I balance each other so well,” she said. “I’m more of the strategic water polo mind and he is the compassionate personable, caring [one]. And we’re both really positive and we bring out the best in each other.”