Without question, the “coolest” sport at Yosemite High is water polo - with boys and girls teams up to their necks in water during practices as the temperature exceeds 100 degrees.
The program has three new coaches this season, all graduates of Yosemite High. Patricia O’Neill will coach boys varsity, and Michelle Burton will lead the girls team, with Erin Capuchino assisting.
Both teams are working on ball handling, defensive moves, transition plays, and most importantly, conditioning.
O’Neill has told the players they may not be the best teams in the Central Valley, but they will be in shape and the smartest.
“These players pay attention to detail and they aren’t afraid to ask questions.” O’Neill said.
O’Neill graduated in 2007 after success participating in basketball, water polo and swimming teams. She played basketball and water polo at Merced Junior College for two seasons before transferring to William Penn University where she played basketball.
Although new to coaching water polo, O’Neill coached girls YHS basketball and summer travel teams in 2012-15.
“I’m excited to get back out at the pool and get the men’s and women’s water polo teams back up and going again,” O’Neill said. “We have a great group of young men who are willing and eager to learn and improve their skills.”
Coach Burton is also a 2007 alum of YHS who swam, and played water polo and basketball.
She attended Hartnell Community College in Salinas before graduating from Fresno State with a BA in Liberal Arts. She received her teaching credential in 2012, and is in her third year teaching fifth grade at Oakhurst Elementary School.
“I am so excited to be coaching as it is something I have always wanted to do and water polo has always had a special place in my heart,” Burton said.
The boys varsity team will have 17 players this season after going 3-10 in league last year. Returning seniors who will serve as co-captains of the Badger team are Dylan Thacker, Peter McLean and Jayden Malcolm.
“Thacker is our returning goalie,” O’Neill said. “Not only has he stepped up as a player this year, but we couldn’t ask for a better leader on the team. We are looking for big things from this young man as his understanding of the game and his strength grows.”
O’Neill said McLean will be a key offensive player for the team this year.
“Playing as hole set, he will have a fight every game but will not leave the water without everyone knowing he was there,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill called Malcolm a strong willed young man.
“In the short amount of time I have worked with him, he has proved to be a leader and hard worker,” O’Neill said. “He will be our key on defense and battle some of the strongest players on the other teams.”
O’Neill said the boys team has a lot of returning talent who have all grown and improved over the summer.
“I am looking forward to stats going up, and having a winning record this year. It’s going to be tough but I wouldn’t see any other group making the turn around like these young men,” O’Neill said.
The girls team has seven players returning from last year, with seniors Kailey Neal, Laura Pearson and Sierra Sosa serving as the team’s co-captains.
Burton described Neal as fast, strong and a natural athlete who should be one of the team’s leading scorers this season.
“Kailey works hard, has a great throwing arm, and she plays great defensively,” Burton said. “She is completely dedicated to the sport and to her team, and I know we will see great things from her this season.”
Burton feels opponents will have trouble dealing with defensive player Pearson.
“You have to be strong and tough to play down low and Laura is someone that is going to stop the competition in their tracks,” Burton said. “She is a leader in the pool and has been an asset in helping my newer team members learn the game.”
The team’s third co-captain is Sosa, another strong and fast player with a great competitive spirit.
“Sierra and Kailey have been playing together for years and you can tell as they make awesome plays together,” Burton said. “Sierra is an excellent leader in the pool and works hard. She is going to be a behind-the-scenes player that makes amazing plays happen.”
Burton said her team has only been practicing for less than two weeks and she has already seen a lot of growth.
“This season is going to be a bit of a struggle at times with new coaches and new systems, but these girls are working hard and this could be their year,” Burton said. “We have an interesting mix on this team of experienced and young players that are completely new to the game. The girls work hard, want to win and they have the drive. You can go a long way with that.”
The teams host Hoover High Aug. 25 withe the boys playing at 3 p.m. and the girls at 4.