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Sonora High water polo teams make a big splash

It's like an expansion team winning the World Series. Or a self-funded political newcomer capturing a key primary election. Or maybe a 50-to-1 shot taking the Kentucky Derby.

But not really.

There are better, more compelling explanations for the Sonora High School boys' varsity water polo team winning the Tri-City Athletic League title in only its second year of competition. And for the girls' team in this brand-new sport joining the guys in the 2007 section playoffs.

First, these kids are hardly newcomers. Matt Personius, who with wife Julianne almost single-handedly started the high school's water polo program, has coached many of the varsity players for four, five or even six years.

"A lot of our kids may not relish the memory," grinned Personius, a physician when he's not coaching or talking up water polo. "But they got dismantled by a 14-and-under girls' team when we were just getting started."

Now Sonora High is doing the dismantling: With a 15-2 record (8-1 in league), the Wildcats last week sunk St. Mary's 16-12 for the league championship. And now it's on to the Sac Joaquin Section playoffs on Nov. 3.

The girls team (14-6, 7-2 league), coached by Julianne Personius, is also playoff bound.

Both teams share a work ethic that has brought success. Two-a-day practices, water polo camps and practice during the summer, trips to watch collegiate teams in action, weight work, swimming and almost nonstop drills on the sport's basics are honing the program's more than 40 participants into fit, skilled players.

What's really makes this a Cinderella story is that there was no such thing as a Sonora High water polo team before last year. But district trustees knew the Personiuses well. They were the persistent couple who appeared month-after-month to ask that water polo be made an official high school sport.

Matt and Julianne finally wore the board down: In the spring of 2006 trustees agreed to sanction water polo under one condition: that the sport's booster club paid every cent of the costs.

Which, amazingly, they have.

With benefits, sales, car washes, an annual dinner and auction, and a Sonora Area Foundation grant, the boosters raised more than $50,000 to launch the boys' and girls' programs. And, working 12 months ahead of time (funding for next year is already in the bank), they're footing about $16,000 in annual costs.

Because the Valley Oak League, in which Sonora competes in all others sports, does not have enough water polo-playing schools for competition, the Wildcats joined the TCAL. That this league of Stockton-area, Division I schools have higher and enrollments and are farther away only increases competition and raises costs.

Which makes the Wildcat teams' success that much more remarkable.

The program's coming-of-age moment may have arrived last Thursday, when a big and enthusiastic crowd — including athletes from other sports — gathered at the Sonora High Pool for the league championship match against St. Mary's. It was then obvious that water polo, despite its young age, was no fringe sport likely to disappear due to lack of student interest of parental support.

"It was always our goal to do more than to just get this sport started," said Matt Personius, whose sons Julian and Christian are on the varsity team. "I want water polo to be here for the long haul. I want it to succeed on a continuing basis."

"It's already well on its way, water polo has become part of our athletic community," said Rick Francis, Sonora High's athletic director.

Yet, despite success and stability, it remains the school's only unsubsidized sport. It alone among nearly 20 varsity girls' and boys' sports, receives nothing from the district.

It's seems clear, and for reasons that go far beyond records and championship alone, that it is time for this to change.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.


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