The very first time Sonora High’s water polo head coach Matt Personius laid eyes on Brooke Bates in the water, he knew he was seeing something special.
SONORA WILDCAT 2011 GRADUATE Brooke Bates will head south this coming school year to play water polo at Division I UC Santa Barbara. AMY ALONZO ROZAK/UNION DEMOCRAT
“The first time I saw Brooke she was a freshman,” said Personius. “She had just started playing water polo and didn’t know much about the game. But the first time she got into the pool, she immediately moved in the water like she knew what she was doing. I could see right away that she could be a special player.”
Four outstanding years later, Bates is taking her special talents to UC Santa Barbara to play for Hall of Fame coach Wolf Wigo as a preferred walk-on.
“They’ve been one of the top programs and its always been where I’ve wanted to go,” said Bates, who also was recruited by UOP (University of Pacific, in Stockton) and Occidental. “When Santa Barbara started recruiting me, I knew it’s where I wanted to go. It’s a top-notch national program and I love the area.”
Bates has swam with Tuolumne County Aquatics and has been in the water “her whole life,” she says. In the seventh and eighth grades she started playing some water polo at her gym.
That’s where she came into view of JulieAnn Personius, who along with her husband Matt, was working to establish the water polo program at Sonora High.
“When I met Brooke, she was already swimming with TCA and I saw how graceful she was in the water. She was such a hard-worker,” said JulieAnn Personius. “Then when she started playing with us as a freshman, everything was confirmed for me.”
Bates was a natural in the water but it took extra effort and dedication to push her to the Division I collegiate level.
Bates would wake up at 6 a.m. every summer morning and drive over an hour to Modesto to play on the Modesto-Stanislaus club team where she would participate in the Junior Olympics tournament. Whereas most players on the team would be asleep, Bates would be in the car on Highway 108.
“It’s a testament to her desire to go as far as she can with this activity,” said Brett Bohlender, who oversees the Modesto-Stanislaus club team. “She makes the long drive down to Modesto, and they practice early, so she has to get up real early and drive an hour to get here. She wants to succeed and she has that drive. She’s constantly improving.”
In four years playing — all on the varsity level — Bates was named the Most Valuable Player for the last three seasons and was a team captain in her final two. She made First-Team All-League in her junior and senior seasons where she also led the team in scoring.
“Brooke is so tenacious. If there’s another team involved, along with a ball, she goes after it,” said JulieAnn Personius.
“She has a great skill set — she’s tall, strong, fast and a really good shooter,” said Matt Personius. “She’s physically able to do anything you ask of her in the pool.”
And now Bates will take her “great skill set” to play for a coach who was a three-time Olympian and an 11-year member of Team USA, including being named a captain.
“I’m really excited,” said Bates. “He seems like a great guy. I heard he’s real tough but also one of the best coaches in the country. But I would have never started playing if it wasn’t for the whole Personius family. They have pushed me hard but have encouraged me every step of the way. They are very generous and have taught me a lot and without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
“First of all, to get any interest or notice from a D1 school is incredible,” said Matt Personius. “It’s pretty dang exciting. For us to have one of our players go and be able to compete on that level is just fantastic.”
“I think it’s a real good opportunity for her, but it’s gonna be a lot of hard work as well,” said Bohlender. “But she does have that desire and dedication and my thought is she’ll be able to make that traveling team in a couple of years.”
“I am so thrilled for her,” said JulieAnn Personius. “She called me after she knew she was going there and I thought it was so sweet that she called me. I was really touched that she let me enjoy her excitement with her.
“I think it’s gonna be a great place for her.”