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Both Tiger squads are in transition heading into the fall season and a return to high school teams

GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Mackenzie Russell is playing her final season of club water polo this spring after having recently graduated from Newberg High School.

After an 11-10 loss to Lincoln in the state semifinals last fall, the Newberg High School girls water polo team entered its club season this spring with an eye on giving its younger players more experience. The Tigers will lose star Mackenzie Russell to graduation at the end of this summer, so the less experienced batch of players will play a key role in next year's title chase.

Coach Cari Blanchard said she was confident as the club team took a 10-10 record into the final two games of its home tournament at the Chehalem Aquatic Center last week.

"I think we're looking pretty good," she said. "All my young girls are going to be juniors, and we're going to lose Mackenzie, but those younger girls are filling in their roles nicely. We've been busy with a lot of tournaments this spring – a lot of water polo and a lot of pool time."

Stella Byles, heading into her senior year at NHS, and Nikki Rubottom, who will be a junior, are taking on leadership roles for the Tigers. Both are strong competitors on the swim team as well and boast athletic prowess and goal scoring abilities, Blanchard said.

Filling the void this fall will undoubtedly be a challenge, but the spring has seen new girls come into the club fold from outside of Newberg. Two players from Mountainside High School, two from Tualatin High School and one from Valley Catholic join the squad as it embarks on a challenging schedule throughout the West Coast.

Tournaments in California and around Oregon have decorated Newberg's schedule as it continues to build chemistry and attempts to improve itself before the all-important fall run ahead.

"I definitely think we're going to be strong and solid all around," Blanchard said, referencing this fall's varsity team. "I know I'm ready and my girls are ready to actually play in that final game next year. Our consistency with the club program leads to success in the fall and we hope that pays off this fall."

The Tiger girls and boys have a trip to Hawaii planned for later this summer, but it's a working vacation. Both teams will be participating in an invitational tournament that draws top teams from around the country.

Blanchard said the bonding experience alone makes the trip worth it, but the competition that shows up on the islands is stiff although the tourney itself is a lot of fun.

"It's a great experience because it's Hawaii, but we're going back because it's actually a well-run, highly competitive tournament," Blanchard said. "I look forward to seeing how we perform."

Boys fresh off a five-peat

The NHS boys captured a fifth consecutive state championship in the fall, but a senior-heavy lineup is playing its final round of club polo this spring before a major transition. Five starting seniors are all leaving Newberg at the end of the summer.

That leaves a void of contribution that must be filled by young guys, many of whom have varsity experience, club coach Jake Kinne said.

"It goes in waves," Kinne said. "We always joke about every couple years the girls will be strong and the boys will be weaker, or vice versa, but you're always trying to bring up the young kids in the program and develop them. We actually have a really strong freshman class coming in."

Some of the more experienced contributors returning include incoming seniors Nathan Waldal and Alex Touzeau, who will score a lot of goals for Newberg this fall and have done so this spring and summer. In goal will be incoming junior Nick Helikson, who is getting his first taste of full-time action after sitting behind an elite goalie last season and the one previous.

"He's a big guy with long arms, so he does well in the cage," Kinne said. "It's been fun to see him come into his own after playing behind Wilson Johnson for the last two years. It's kind of been a coming out party for him."

Kinne looks forward to the Hawaii trip and an interesting fall season in which Newberg will have to rally without many of its biggest contributors in order to win a sixth straight title. For now, though, the team is focused on a club season in which it was 9-6 prior to the final two games of its home tournament.

Trips to San Diego and the upcoming one to Hawaii have been crucial for the squad as it continues to develop.

"We started training in February and we've played in five tournaments at this point," Kinne said. "We have some great players coming back who are going to be seniors and it's just been a kind of transition season from having five starting seniors last year. I'm excited about these guys."

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