One new coach.
No pool to call their own.
Those were the circumstances facing the Strathmore girls water polo program when the year started — not exactly your typical recipe for success. Add in the fact that this was only the program's fourth year fielding a full varsity team and you can understand why pulling a Valley title out of the oven seemed like such a long shot.
But that list fails to mention Strathmore's key ingredient: 2014 Times-Delta/Advance-Register All-Tulare County girls water polo player of the year Carly Innis.
As the team's only senior, Innis was the only player left from Strathmore's original varsity girls water polo team — the one that started in 2011 during her freshman year. She helped the Spartans reach the Central Section Division III semifinals as a sophomore and junior, but that was before the program brought in a new coach and such a high volume of underclassmen.
But instead of helping the Spartans start over, Innis helped the team win its first ever Valley championship. Along the way she recorded the second most points in the state with 164 while scoring 101 goals (eighth most in the state) and 63 assists (fourth most in the state). On defense she made 96 steals.
"Carly is one of those athletes every coach in America wants," Strathmore coach Tom Harrison said. "She's hardworking, dedicated, constantly evolving and learning. Her swimming ability is incredible. Her understanding of the game is so advanced."
Even before her career ended with a title, Innis was sure to go down in Strathmore water polo lore.
Add one pool of water
Innis still remembers attending school board meetings with her parents to lobby for a pool to play in.
She remembers recruiting other students to play for a team with no substitutes because it had just enough girls to field a starting lineup.
She'll never forget the night all her hard work started coming together.
Strathmore opened its new pool this year just in time for Innis to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Fittingly enough, the Spartans played their first game in that new pool on senior night with Innis as the only one in her class being honored.
The night came towards the end of Strathmore's perfect 8-0 run through the East Sequoia League. The Spartans made sure they played three more games in that pool, finishing off a 14-0 run to end their season with the program's first ever Valley championship.
Top seeded Strathmore pummeled No. 8 Madera South 20-3 in the quarterfinals and cruised to the title with an 18-12 win over No. 3 Reedley. It all hinged on a 16-13 overtime win over No. 4 Lemoore in the semifinals — Strathmore's first true test since league play began.
"In our league we didn't have a lot of tough competition. We didn't have close games," Innis said. "Where we really stepped it up was the semifinals because we had to. That game was up and down and I saw the fire inside everyone and when we were put in situation like that we could do it."
ESL play may not have prepared them for that moment, but the veteran combo of Innis and her new coach did.
Mix with leadership and humility
Harrison knew what he inherited with Innis, but he also knew he couldn't win a championship with just one great player. Strathmore's consecutive losses in the Valley semifinals from the previous two seasons were testament to that.
"Most of the girls on the team I had coached earlier," Harrision said. "These girls had been playing club for a couple years. The goal was to make them become one. Everyone has to know each other's ins and outs, strengths and weaknesses — not just rely on Carly."
Innis helped the cause by exemplifying what it means to be a team player. She knew her underclassmen teammates looked up to her as the only senior and tried to teach them things she didn't learn until an older age.
"[Innis] is not selfish. It's not about me, me, me," Harrison said. "Her sportsmanship and scholastics are incredible. She was a great teacher to the kids. She is a tremendous athlete with no selfish ambition."
Having his star player serve as a second coach of sorts helped the Harrison achieve his goal. The Spartans became one.
"It was different but it was really nice," Innis said of playing under a new coach for the first time in her Strathmore water polo career. "Tom was like the expert water polo coach, but he brought a lot of passion and brought a lot of heart. It was nice to have someone with such a positive influence. He helped bring our team together."
Here's the kicker: If Innis had a little more selfish ambition, she may never have played at Strathmore at all.
Heat until golden
Innis lives outside school district lines, giving her the choice to attend school — and play water polo — wherever she wants.
Instead of basing her decision on athletics, however, the coveted water polo prospect focused on her education and went to Harmony Magnet Academy, which plays all of its sports with Strathmore.
Innis said people occasionally give her a hard time, telling her she should have played at Porterville instead of a school that had never fielded a varsity water polo team before she arrived.
But Innis wanted to study engineering and Harmony offered the most for her in terms of education.
She's taking that same decision making approach to college applications.
"Water polo isn't going to get me a career in my future," Innis said. "It's really important that I think about what I'm going to do and make sure I get a good education. If get to play water polo then that makes it that much better."
Whether she ends up on a Division III team or even at the club level doesn't concern Innis. She just loves to play the sport.
Turns out that feeling was both contagious and a key ingredient to Strathmore's title run.
"Their excitement was just incredible to watch," Harrison said of his players when remembering the Valley championship. "The team all embraced [Innis]. If you call them all they would say we wanted to do this for Carly."
Now that's a recipe for success.