Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat

Traditionally, Sonora and Oakdale high schools are competitive rivals in all sports.

But four years ago, the Sonora and Oakdale water polo clubs merged in the summer to form a higher-level squad to allow its teams to compete on bigger stages.

Allegiances were put aside and a dynamic club team was established.

"SOAK is obviously a word that combines Sonora and Oakdale into one word," Wildcats head coach and SOAK assistant Matt Personius said. "The idea was to let our players play together in the summer. It does several things. No. 1, it allows our players to get a broader base of experience and more competition by players from elsewhere other than our own program. No. 2, it increases our numbers. It allows us to more easily fill teams for tournaments, sometimes, multiple teams. The third thing it does is that it allows us to put together the best players from the two teams and to create a club that maybe is better than the individual clubs might have been on their own."

And that idea has paid off.

For the fourth consecutive year, SOAK will send a girls' water polo team to the USA Water Polo National Junior Olympics on July 31 to Aug. 3 in Stanford.

That 16-and-under squad features Sonora Wildcats Celia Cotrone, Hailey Carson-Hull, Taylor Coleman, Katie Ferris, Samantha Slater and Josie Personius. The team qualified for nationals after placing fifth out of 16 teams at the Central California Junior Olympics Regional Qualifier held in June in Modesto and Oakdale.

"The qualifying tournament was a lot of fun and it's a really great learning experience," Ferris said. "This summer I have become a much better player."

For its placement, SOAK received the No. 33 seed in the 48-team bracket.

"We want to do the best we can," coach Personius said. "We want to finish with a ranking as high as possible. But JOs is essentially, for us, a way to make our high school teams better. We go to JOs so we can play higher-level water polo. When we play higher-level water polo, that comes back and feeds our program in the fall and makes us a better team."

At the Santa Cruz Classic Tournament on July 12-13, SOAK won the 16-and-under division by posting a perfect 3-0 record.

"It was a great weekend," Ferris said. "It was really cool to go undefeated."

The team placed second in the 18U tournamenton Sunday, finishing with a 2-1 record. Its only loss came in the championship game against Sacred Heart Prep.

"I felt we could have easily won both tournaments, but we didn't have our best game in the last one," coach Personius said. "Two days, back-to-back, everyone's a little bit tired, so we didn't necessarily play our best. But it was a good weekend for us. We learned a lot. We moved forward as a team, and that's really all it's about."

Ferris, along with Josie Personius and Slater, are projected to start for SOAK at Junior Olympics.

The incoming Wildcat senior Ferris is a starter at the central defense.

"She's doing a great job," coach Personius said. "Really has been progressing a lot as a player."

Sophomore attacker Josie Personius is one of SOAK's top scorers and Slater's extensive swimming background has been a plus for the team. Slater competed at the prestigious Summer Sanders Invitational earlier this summer.

"Samantha Slater is also going to be a sophomore," coach Personius said. "She is an outstanding swimmer. Has really learned to use her speed to create offensive opportunities in the counterattacks and transition. She's getting some goals as a result."

SOAK was placed in Group I with No. 9 San Diego Shores A, No. 16 Trojan WPC and No. 40 Tualatin Hills WPC.

The team's opening match is against Trojan WPC on Thursday, July 31 at Saratoga High School. First toss is at7:50 a.m.

"We're going to be playing against teams from all over the country," coach Personius said. "A lot of teams from the Bay Area and Southern California, who have highly competitive programs that are playing year round at a very high level, which our girls never see. I'm thrilled for the opportunity just to play those teams. I'm very excited for the opportunity to not just play, but be competitive with some of those teams, and to see just how high we can go."