Each year, Lake Nona continues to take great strides forward in development. What strides might seem insignificant to an outside perspective can be seen as unique to this community. For the past 10 years, one sports team at Lake Nona High School is taking such strides, and the results show. Out of 20 possible district titles, they’ve earned 17.
A lot of people are not familiar with it, but water polo is packed with action and takes a lot of dedication, according to boys and girls coach Alexander Bennett. Since the school’s second year after opening, that dedication has allowed the girls’ team to win a district title each year since. This year, it’s also kept them undefeated. For the boys, they have earned consecutive district titles since the third year after opening.
Bennett, who is also an academic resource teacher at the school, has been a part of the school and program since the beginning in 2009. He mentioned that success happens year after year because the players want to be the best for their team. Regardless of their experience, Bennett never cuts a player from the sport.
“It’s not about wins and losses. It’s about the experience of taking kids and helping them grow. 99.9 percent of the players have never seen a [water polo] ball, but each one has a way to contribute to the team,” Bennett said.
The dedication players offer could be made easier, however. Currently, the team travels approximately an hour, roundtrip, in order to practice at Lake Highland Preparatory School. With no pools in the area that can meet the standard a water polo team needs, both teams have had to make the journey to practice regularly for a few years now.
To some players, the approximately 23-mile drive itself isn’t difficult. It’s having to pay for gas and tolls almost every weekday while sacrificing valuable time that makes it hard, senior player Laura Bechtel mentioned.
“It’s harder when there are some players who can’t even make practice just because they don’t have a ride or the juniors’ and seniors’ cars are all filled up,” Bechtel said.
Players feel the effect of the distance they must travel to practice. Outside of costs and worrying about rides, players must also keep up with a larger responsibility: being a student. In a time when the competition for getting into great schools seems to be increasing, the players must keep up with their assignments.
Bechtel recalls having to sometimes stay up until 1:30 or even 2 a.m. in her junior year just to finish work such as her chemistry formal lab reports. Though having just started, freshman Payton Human knows the feeling already. For her, having to come home after school and then get motivated to head to practice is a difficulty she has to deal with.
The team gets home around 8 or 9 p.m. After two hours of being in the pool, they get tired. This gets particularly hard around test or exam times, but they just have to keep going, Payton mentioned.
Payton’s mother, Shannon Human, shared that it’s not just a concern for the players but the parents, too. The travel time cuts into their time they can use for assignments and that’s something to think about, too. On top of that, the kids are so hungry after their practice that they sometimes stop over to eat dinner.
“The greatest concern is that the more chances she’s in a car for that long, the more you worry that something could happen to her,” Shannon Human said.
Sharing similar sentiments, Bennett mentioned that he has two kids himself who he doesn’t get to see as often during the season. He questioned the last time a player got to sit down and eat dinner at a normal time. All of this “can be grueling on a family” when it happens almost every night, Bennett said.
Having experienced the costs, ride issues, and time lost, senior and goalie Lauryn Deak mentioned that she still wouldn’t have it any other way. It wasn’t something she felt comfortable with like many others, but just like her fellow senior teammates, they’ve learned to keep a positive attitude, she said.
Though the regular drives are about 30 minutes, she’s been able to make use of them with the one freshman and two sophomore girls she takes to and from practice. Discussing problems they face or simply sharing advice about the game she’s experienced over the past three years of playing, Deak tries to pay forward what she once felt as a younger play.
“At first I was like, ‘No way! I’m not playing this!’ after I saw my sister come out of the pool with scratches on her arms and legs. And plus, the previous goalie would have balls thrown at her face,” Deak said.
But after deciding to give the sport a chance, she came to like the game. That came mainly because she’s always enjoyed the team aspect behind certain sports. Though she never played before her sophomore year in which she started, she heard about the girls’ team the year before. She came to know that they were one of the best. Eventually, some of the girls graduated and left, so she felt she had a role to carry on that legacy of being one of the best teams in Florida, Deak said.
Since the school opened, either team has still to win the state championship. However, this year looks to be promising, especially for the girls and their two-time win over Winter Park. With it being one of their biggest competitors, the girls have taken great pride in their wins over the school. In fact, for Deak and Bechtel, they believe the second win has to be the sweetest win for the team.
“You can beat a team one time, but they’re not going to give it to you the second time. They’re coming back 10 times stronger because they’ve studied your game,” Deak said while recollecting this advice that Bennett gave the team.
For now, a local pool for the teams to use is unlikely, especially on the high school campus. However, speaking with Tavistock Development Company, Bennett mentioned that there seems to be great hope of a local pool the team can use by the year 2022.
Just like previous years, the water polo teams of Lake Nona High School continue to remain accomplished. So, while the team waits for a local pool, they seem to share one voice in encouraging the community, especially students and any skeptics, to come out more often to support the team.
“To me, it was like, ‘Water polo? Really?’ But once you watch it, it’s so exciting and it pulls you in,” Shannon Human said.
The teams continue their success and one that just might lead them to win their first-ever state championship. On Saturday, April 20, both the boys’ and girls’ teams managed to advance to the regional final. If they can secure the regional championship, then the teams will advance to the state semifinals.
For the girls, the road ahead has already proven to be tough. According to their prediction, Lake Nona High School would’ve originally faced Winter Park in the state semifinals, a team they beat twice this year. Now, however, if they advance, then they will face the state champions from last year, Hialeah Senior High School. This has caused nerves in some of the players, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Deak.
“Coach Bennett often tells us, ‘Nerves mean that you’re ready and being scared means that you’re unprepared,’” Deak said.