The Lake Mary High School girls’ water
polo team plays for the state championship and leaves it all on the water
If you’re not already familiar with the Lake Mary High School water polo team, you’re not alone. The program has historically swum just under the surface, as it were, but no more. The LMHS girls’ water polo team just finished second in the state championship tournament and is officially putting Florida’s top water polo squads on notice. The Rams have hit their stride under coach Paige Baker, and the possibilities seem endless for this group of 18 young women who spend almost as much time in the water as they do on dry land.
Water polo has been offered at Lake Mary High almost since its inception in the early 1980s, however the sport was only accepted into the Florida High School Athletic Association in 2006. In all those years, the LMHS team had just three coaches: Fred Tyler, Kent Mullins, and Paige. Fred was Paige’s coach when she was a student at LMHS, and Paige assistant-coached with Kent for four years. Three years ago, Paige took over the water polo program, both boys and girls, and has been working tirelessly to continue the program’s legacy and build on its future.
“Water polo was such a big part of my life growing up that I wanted to give back,” says Paige. “I had an amazing coach when I was here who gave me all those life lessons, gave me all that mentoring. When he retired, I wanted to make sure I maintained all the traditions he started back when he began all these programs. I wanted to give back to something that was so important to me.”
The lessons Paige learned as a water polo player at LMHS are what she strives to pass on to her team today. Ultimately, she seeks to inspire her students to be better young citizens in society, and Paige’s coaching philosophy is centered around family and academics.
“First and foremost I teach family,” she says. “I want them to be a family with each other. And a highlight for me this year was finally seeing that culture click. They were one big family. Then I teach academics. All of my girls have outstanding academics. I make sure of that, because they are student-athletes, not athlete-students.”
While academics are the priority, Paige also isn’t afraid to push her team athletically. During the season, January through April, the girls practice in the water two hours daily, alternate weight-training days with the boys’ team, and have one-hour practices every other Saturday. Paige estimates it’s at least a 12-hour commitment per week. And water polo isn’t for the faint of heart. Players must be able to tread water, wrestle, and shoot the ball – all without touching the bottom of the pool. Endurance and skill are essential requirements.
Coming into the season, the whole girls’ team had a gut feeling that this was their year. Julie Barrett, a sophomore, explains the change in mind-set from the previous season.
“I think everyone realized we had lots of potential and knew we could do something with it if we all stayed calm and worked with what we had,” she says. “There was less stress, and we worked really well together.”
But before the season even started, the Rams had a huge hurdle to overcome: finding a pool in which to practice. The J. Douglas Williams YMCA in Lake Mary, where they usually practiced, planned to resurface its pool during the season and wouldn’t be available for weeks. In a gesture of magnanimous sportsmanship, Lyman High School stepped up and allowed the LMHS team to practice in its on-campus pool.
While it came close a few times, the LMHS girls’ water polo team hadn’t been to the state tournament since 2007 and just couldn’t seem to make it past districts. But they went into the district tournament this year as the first seed and finally broke through their barrier, beating both Lyman and Seminole High School to move on to regionals. After defeating Hagerty and Winter Park, the Rams went on to states and beat Lake Nona High School to play Hialeah High in the state finals.
“I’ve got to give it up for Hialeah. My goodness, are they a phenomenal team,” Paige says of the Rams’ opponent in the final game. “We lost that game, but the team had fun. They smiled the whole time. I’m proud of them for the way they handled it. They didn’t yell or get upset. They laughed, they smiled, they joked around, they had fun. And at the end of the game, they were so happy to have had that experience. State runner-up, second in the state, is a huge accomplishment. It’s huge!”
“I’m proud to have been the captain of such an astounding team,” says Khole Riordan, who graduated from Lake Mary High in May. “We showed a lot of people that we’re a good team and we’re well coached. We deserved the recognition.”
Like Julie, Khloe believes it was the team’s tight bond that brought them success.
“In seasons past, we hadn’t been as close as a team, we all played as individuals,” says Khloe. “This season, we played as one.”
Although the girls’ water polo team lost three amazing seniors at the end of this school year, Paige intends to keep up the progress the program has made and has the highest hopes for what they can achieve next season.
“We have some great young talent,” she says, “and I’m looking forward to seeing them own it.”
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