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Both the boys and girls teams hope to keep the championship tradition alive at the school

GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN -  Sophomore Nick Helikson's height and long arms should be an asset for the Tigers in goal this season.

At this point, it's a foregone conclusion that Newberg water polo is going to be in the state championship discussion. Even in down years, the Tigers are always in the mix to win it all.

This year is far from a down year for Jim McMaster and Cari Blanchard's squads, but it is one of transition for both the boys and girls teams as their rosters get younger. The graduation of talented seniors on both sides thrusts incoming juniors, sophomores and even freshmen into contributing roles.

For the boys, a senior class of five is trying to fill the proverbial swim caps of the seven who graduated from last year's championship team. The program has won five consecutive state championships and won't settle for anything other than capturing its sixth – even as this group loses so many top players.GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Jack Roberson is one of five seniors on a Newberg team working on its offense this fall

"We graduated quite a few seniors from last year that had been on that state championship team," McMaster said. "That was a lot of experience, but we have some talent coming back this year and I think we're solid. We have a lot of things to learn, but we're solid."

McMaster believes his team is still among the top three or four in the state, competing with the likes of Lakeridge and Lake Oswego near the top. Their defense, he said, is where they shine – and he expects plenty of low-scoring, physical games this year.

Where the team lacks compared to previous years is depth, he said. That puts more pressure on the starters to perform and stay out of foul trouble, even as the Tigers maintain their physical and swarming style of play.

"They're well-rounded," McMaster said. "We've been working a lot on our defense, and they've been strong in that, but their shooting isn't as strong as last year. Like most things, we're working on it."

Newberg's top players include seniors Nathan Waldal, Alex Touzeau and Osmand Evans, among others. In the cage is sophomore Nick Helikson, who McMaster is extremely confident in.

There are five freshmen on the varsity squad as well who figure to compete for time in the lineup. McMaster, ever the critical coach, said they have a few things to learn, but that Helikson is proof that hard work pays dividends.

"He would have been able to start on most teams in the state last year as a freshman, but he had a talented senior in front of him," McMaster said of Helikson. "He will be out there to prove himself this year and I'm excited to see how he plays."

Newberg opens up its season on Saturday at South Eugene before hosting Beaverton at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 9 in Newberg. McMaster is confident that the team will shake off its early-season rust quickly and cut down on the mistakes, which he said can show themselves in the early going.

The team hosts its home tournament on Sept. 27 and 28. It also plans to travel to Modesto, Calif., for a tournament as well as a tourney up in Washington. As far as in-state competition, McMaster expects his team to be at or near the top once again.

"We were so dominant last year that it's hard to say who will compete with us among these teams," McMaster said. "That could change, but we just have to see them in the pool. Barlow could be tough, Reynolds could be tough, Westview, etcetera.

"I'm excited to see how the kids handle the pressure and compete."

Girls hope for redemption

After dropping a postseason match to Lincoln last year, Newberg girls water polo is keeping its aspirations high in 2019.GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Graphic photos: Gary Allen
Sophomore Amelia Bayha pressures her teammate during a recent practice.

While there are just three seniors on the roster, Blanchard touts her teams experiences as something that will prove valuable once it starts playing top teams. The experience playing together, she said, is invaluable for many of the juniors, sophomores and freshmen – and the same is true for that trio of seniors.

"They're solid right now," Blanchard said. "They trained all summer and conditioned really well, so coming into the fall it's about fine-tuning everything and getting used to a different mix of girls. They are looking good so far."

Senior Stella Byles and juniors Natalie Kisling and Hailey Day are projected to be the "big three" of sorts for the Tigers, leading the way in the pool and locker room. Junior Maile Walls is in the cage and Blanchard expects "big things" from her this season as the goalie.GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Junior Madelyn Morse defends a boys' player near the goal.

"We definitely have a lot of depth and a lot of speed," Blanchard said. "I think overall knowledge of the game and the level of play we're capable of is fantastic. We just have to put the work in to get where we want to be."

A state title is the overall goal for the team, but Blanchard said she isn't focusing solely on that. She and the girls worked on goal setting before this season – short- and long-term – in order to get their minds right before embarking on their campaign.

Expectations are undoubtedly high for this group, Blanchard said, but they can't get too hung up on the long-term goal of a title. Their short-term improvement will lead to long-term success, she said, so they need to take it day-by-day – as the old sports clichÉ goes.

"We definitely will dominate in our league again," Blanchard said. "Barlow is going to be strong again, Lincoln will be in the mix, and we're going to wait and see how it shakes out with other teams from around the state. We're focused on us."

Newberg has its home tournament in just two weeks, which Blanchard said will provide an opportunity to scout some of the top teams in the state.

Right now, it's a pretty open race to see who will win it all come November, but she said Newberg will be in the mix.

Out-of-state tournaments like the trip to California will provide quality competition in the weeks leading up to the state tournament, Blanchard said. That's why they schedule it.

"That's great for the team because we get to play top competition from outside the state," Blanchard said. "It really gets them geared up for the final part of the season and playoffs.

"I'm excited. There's some great talent, and every fall is different. I think they should do really well and make their presence felt."

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