Grizzlies hope balance equals wins

Christi Gilmore knew five years ago that accepting the job to coach both the boys and girls water polo teams at Ashland would be double the work.

Last fall, though, it also meant double the championships with each squad coming out victorious in the state finals.

But before her teams jump in to their 2009 campaigns, Gilmore wants the Grizzlies to be washed of any added pressure that success might bring.

"No expectations," she said. "None at all; I've taken them completely off the table. We had a great run last year and an awesome time, but I want both of these teams to earn it on their own merit, not based on what we achieved before."

Now entering her fifth year in charge, Gilmore has at least raised the bar, if not the expectations, for Ashland water polo. When she started there were 11 members on each team, whereas the program consists of 36 pupils in 2009.

On the boys side, eight seniors return with state championship experience from a team that posted a 15-2 record and overwhelmed Parkrose, 17-9, in the state championship match.

Gone from that team, though, is German exchange student Robin Haase, who showed up to Ashland and poured in 83 goals — more than twice the total of any other Grizzly — on his way to state MVP honors.

The Grizzlies' defense also took a major hit when it graduated Troy Thomas, their only other first team all-state performer, who accounted for almost 40 percent of the team's steals with 116.

The good news? Nearly every other contributor from the 2008 squad is back, and the Grizzlies expect that will translate into a more balanced attack.

"Troy and Robin were obviously our strongest players last year, and we went a long way putting most of our focus on creating opportunities for them," senior Lucas Opgenorth said. "But losing them has really created more of a team dynamic. We're going to really be able to spread people out with several different threats, and as a whole, I think this could actually be a stronger team than we had."

Opgenorth lead returners with 46 steals last season, while also tallying 27 goals as a second-team all-state performer. Wynn Michael, another senior, also earned all-state accolades with 33 goals.

But the Grizzlies also feature four others who scored more than 10 times, and a second-team all-state goalie in Willis Plummer.

"I'm really excited about this team," Gilmore said. "It's all up to them how far they want to go, but we're going to surprise a lot of people with some boys that did a lot more of the dirty work last year."

The Ashland girls, starring only four players with previous varsity experience, have a longer ways to go before getting back to a championship level.

State tournament MVP Allison Gida and conference MVP Natalie Del Carlo are gone, and the Grizzlies will need their younger talent to mature quickly.

"I think the learning curve for this team is going to be steep," Gilmore said. "We have a lot of work to do, a lot to learn. But they're ready for the challenge, and I'm excited to see where it goes."

Carlie Santee, who Gilmore called the best goalie in the state, was a first-team all-state pick a year ago with 139 saves and is considered the top returner, and Kalli Walker contributed 11 goals.

Both the boys and girls will be in the pool against Medford on Tuesday at Southern Oregon University to start preseason play. Action starts at 4 p.m.

"The girls and the boys both surprised me last year when they pulled out the championships; it was definitely unexpected," Gilmore said. "Hopefully they can surprise me this year, too."

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