OCEANSIDE — Despite all the odds, including their own expectations and the challenges navigating through the pandemic, Oceanside High School’s aquatic sports programs have evolved from where they were three years ago.
Just a few seasons ago, the boys’ swim and water polo teams didn’t quite feel like they belonged on the pool deck with the other schools.
“We’d go in and think, oh we’re done,” said Dylan Crookes, a senior who has been swimming and playing water polo for the Pirates his entire high school career.
Other teams would often joke about the Pirates, writing them off as having already lost and not taking their meets or games with them as seriously. That kind of mentality leaked its way into the Pirates’ own minds, bringing down morale.
“They fell victim to the mindset of, ‘Oh, we’re Oceanside, we aren’t worthy,’” said Kelsie Emerick-Hunt, who took over coaching boys’ swimming and water polo in 2019.
Everything changed after Emerick-Hunt, known best as “Coach Kelsie” by her players, took over the program.
Earlier this year, the OHS swim team won their Avocado League for the first time in 37 years. They also took three boys to CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) relays, placing in the top 16, and three girls for CIF relays who placed in the top 20. They also had several boys swim in individual events.
The boys’ water polo team won the City Cup Championship earlier this year for the first time in 20 years, beating their El Camino High School rivals. The win followed the team’s building momentum since Fall 2019 when Emerick-Hunt took over, having advanced to quarterfinals in CIF and winning, then moving on as far as semi-finals that year.
The swim team was four weeks into their Spring 2020 season when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing them and the rest of the year’s sports programs to cancel until further notice. The swim team was then the first team to resume in January 2021, the same season that they became league champions.
Coming back to swim during a pandemic was a challenge for everyone, including the Pirates, who had to navigate changing schedules and deal with a scarce amount of swimmers at practice.
“We took everything day by day,” Crookes said.
Still, even with changing rules and schedules, the team made it out on top.
In August, the swim team was recognized by Mayor Esther Sanchez at a City Council meeting, where she boasted the team’s achievements and awarded them a Certificate of Excellence.
In addition to their improving stats, the swim and water polo teams also have new, matching speedos, polos and caps that say exactly who these kids are: Oceanside Pirates.
“Oceanside has this motto, ‘Once a pirate, always a pirate,’ and to be a pirate you have to have this very outspoken attitude, but that wasn’t being backed up,” Emerick-Hunt said. “So we came in and I created a look for the team so that they have matching gear.”
Now, the team carries themselves with more confidence when they walk out on deck.
Water polo, currently in season until early November, has undergone some dramatic changes just this year alone. Two weeks before the season started and on the night of Emerick-Hunt’s wedding, the team found out they were being moved for the first time in school history from Division 3 to Division 2.
Normally a team moves up a division after they win their original division, but the Pirates were moved based on their improved performance over the last three years.
At first, the team wasn’t exactly happy about the switch to D2 without getting to win D3 first, but after playing the first few weeks of the season, the boys realized the change was good after all.
“It shows what we can do,” Crookes said.
The boys’ water polo team also grew quite a bit this year, gaining 11 new players instead of the usual three or four. There are now 31 players on the roster.
For now, swim and water polo are no-cut sports for Emerick-Hunt as they try to build their aquatics program back up. She also expects to lose 11 seniors after this year, which makes up the vast majority of her varsity team.
According to top seniors like Crookes, things have changed for the better since Emerick-Hunt arrived. Her teams respect their coach and demonstrate their good sportsmanship at the various meets and games, impressing those from other schools.
“The biggest compliment I get for our team is after games for the last three seasons, officials and parents from the other teams would email me and say ‘your boys are so polite, their sportsmanship is great, you guys are such a pleasure to play,’ and to me that’s a bigger deal than whether we won or lost the game,” the coach said. “If I can teach them some water polo while we’re here that’s cool, but really I just want them to be good people.”