Water polo back with promising girls team

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

After a year’s hiatus, water polo is back at Sweet Home High School.

The next challenge is to find enough boys to make their team legal.

New coach Kathy Benzo, of Lacomb, brings five years of experience as head coach of the Lebanon High School water polo team before the program was shut down after she resigned last year.

“I wasn’t going to coach in Lebanon any more,” she said, attributing her departure to what she described as a lack of support for the water polo teams. “Kids were practicing from 8:30 to 10 at night. It was insane. I said, ‘I’m done.'”

Benzo said her daughter Alyshia started attending Sweet Home High last spring, soon after Benzo resigned as coach at Lebanon, where she also had assisted with the high school swim team and coached the Lebanon Aquatic Club for 10 years.

“People found out that (Alyshia’s) mother had coached and called me and asked if I wanted to coach water polo,” she said. “Then the school called me.”

So Benzo signed on and the team started practice last week – in Foster Lake. That was because the pool was closed for maintenance and repairs. Benzo said it was supposed to be ready for practices on Monday, a week ahead of schedule.

She said the girls team looks promising, while she’s till looking for players for the boys.

The girls will have several players with water polo experience including Alyshia Benzo, a senior, Justine Calhoon, another senior, and junior Nichole Martin. They will be joined by Laura Gourley, Jessica Burnside, Katie Kinney, NoraJean Lemar, Tee Whaley and Faith Helfrich, all with various levels of swimming, if not water polo, experience.

“I really think, from what I’ve seen so far, they’ve done a good job of coming together and supporting each other,” Kathy Benzo said. “The older girls are being really good mentors to the newer group. That encourages me.”

The boys team will be made up of players with little water polo experience, but lots of miles behind them. Juniors Jon Lemar and Shawn Adams and sophomore David Worthen, and incoming freshmen Jayce Calhoon, Michael Simmons and Kieren Schaefer make up the team so far, though Benzo said two Lebanon-area home-schooled students, Joel Gunselman and Zach Fetch, are interested in playing as well. The problem for the team is that Gunselman and Fetch, by OSAA rules, can’t legally play because they live in the Lebanon School District, even though Lebanon has no team this year, she said.

“We need seven players for a legal team,” Benzo said.

If the Huskies don’t have seven, they can play but their game results will be forfeits. She said she’d like to recruit one or two more players, possibly a basketball player – who often make good water polo players.

The good news is that the three freshmen are all “great swimmers” with substantial club experience and, Benzo said, “It’s just a matter of getting them to understand the game.”

She said the older players are already showing leadership, particularly Jon Lemar.

“If we do get another boy and make it a legal team, I think we will do well,” Benzo said.

The Huskies opened the season with a Jamboree at Redmond Friday through Sunday. The girls won eight of 11 five-minute matches, and tied another. An incomplete boys team won four out of 11.

The Huskies will be back in action Sept. 7 at South Salem.

“I was pretty happy because at first, a couple of the girls were scared to have me put them in, but by Sunday they were saying ‘Don’t pull me out, coach!'” Benzo said.

Benzo said she expects the competition from the teams in the division, South Albany, West Albany, Summit, Sprague, Corvallis, West Salem and Redmond, in additon to South Albany, to be about the same as she saw at Lebanon, which beat South Salem last year in districts.

“I know that Sprague has lost a lot of top players,” she said.

“I see a real high high possibility that our girls will make it to state,” she said.