The brand-new women’s water polo program at Fresno State is opening doors for athletes in Clovis.
Spring 2018 will be the first season in Fresno State history and head coach Natalie Benson, a former Olympian and star at UCLA, is setting her sights on recruiting Valley high school competitors.
Lee Stronsnider, girls water polo head coach at Clovis East High School, said he is thrilled to have someone like Benson spearheading the new program.
“I am ecstatic, she is as good or better than anything you have ever heard about her, she is phenomenal,” said Stronsnider, who previously was an assistant coach at CSU Bakersfield.
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This past water polo season was Stronsnider’s first in the Central California Zone, which includes schools in 24 Central California counties.
The Southern California native has a history with Benson, when both coached on the national level for the Olympic Development Program.
“She loves the girls, she loves the game, she is passionate, and she is willing to help not just Clovis but everything around us,” Strosnider said. “She wants to help the entire Central Zone to grow with the Fresno State program and she is very open.”
Stronsnider said Benson offers advice on coaching because she is determined to help the sport succeed as well as the players in it.
“She is very open with us in helping us grow with her program,” Stronsnider said.
While at the national championships for the Olympic Development Program in the Bay Area early March, Stronsnider said he saw Fresno State canopies up showcasing the new program and welcoming players.
“We are just so excited because there are so many girls that now have an option that is local and is affordable and can help them not just succeed in college, but if they want to go play nationally, there is a program here for them,” Stronsnider said.
Even though the Fresno State program doesn’t start officially until this fall, when training begins, Stronsnider said he believes the program is already leaving a mark on the Valley.
“I think it has already had an impact and it hasn’t even started,” Stronsnider said. “Water polo is the fastest growing sport in the country right now and having Fresno State put in this program it just shows that this sport is growing and we are a competitive sport.”
He said the new Fresno State program will especially attract the girls who want to play water polo but stay in the Valley.
“I encourage them to look at Fresno State as well as other state schools, but this one they get to stay home and not have to pay for things like housing and food and their parents can be there to support them,” Stronsnider said. “As a college athlete myself in the day I have student loans and a lot are due to housing, so if you take that out of the picture, you’re dropping cost of college down tremendously.”
Stronsnider said the new program at Fresno State will be a good way to follow the sport’s motto.
“USA water polo is doing a good job of getting water polo in every pool, that is our motto,” Stronsnider said. “Using Fresno State is key here especially locally, to use the college program to show there is a realistic opportunity for girls to play in college.”
Morgan Polterock, junior player at Clovis East, said she hopes to continue the sport collegiately and playing at Fresno State would be great.
“I feel like some players in the Valley think that playing in college at a [Division 1] level is out of reach,” Polterock said. “With this program starting up it has inspired many girls to play at a collegiate level because it’s right here at home.”
Polterock said Benson has already made an impression on local high school players.
“I think Natalie Benson will really grow the sport here in the Valley because she has already hosted camps and clinics that have greatly impacted the players here,” Polterock said. “I can’t wait to see what she has planned next for the Central Valley.”
With Benson’s successful past in water polo — which includes leading UCLA to three national championships and landing a spot in the UCLA Hall of fame — Polterock said she is excited to have someone like Benson coaching the new team.
“Not only her Olympic experience but her collegiate level coaching experience will really take this program to the next level,” Polterock said. “Coach Benson is a great teacher and is an inspiration to me and water polo players throughout the country.”
Sascha Ludwig, girls water polo head coach at Buchanan High, said when he shared the news with his team about the new Fresno State program they were enthusiastic about it.
“It is the fact that there is a hometown D1 school that can really show off the talent here in the Central Valley,” Ludwig said.
Ludwig said he is familiar with Benson and her dedication to the sport and Valley athletes.
“With her knowledge and skills I think she can really take the talent we have here and show it off to the country and show them what we have here,” Ludwig said. “I am excited to see what she can do. I have 100 percent trust that she will do really well.”
Ludwig noted that the Fresno State program has a direct link to Buchanan High.
Benson’s assistant coach, Caitlin Haskell, is a Buchanan High graduate who played water polo at University of California Irvine.
“She was here when Buchanan won Valley Championships in the past, so it is a good motivator to see her and say ‘Hey, here’s a Buchanan grad, she won Valley Championships here and now look at her she’s an assistant coach for a D1 program,’” Ludwig said.
Ludwig agreed the new program gives girls in the Valley an opportunity to look at a college close to home.
“Most of the time in water polo if girls want to play D1 they need to look at 3 to 4 hours away from here, now they will have something that is close,” Ludwig said. “It is allowing more opportunities for girls to see what that next level is and having contact and be able to see it instead of just something that is hours away.”
Benson has shown the community that she is here to support the talent in the Valley and Ludwig said that has made coaches confident in her ability to build this new team.
“Just from hearing other coaches they are really enthusiastic about her,” Ludwig said. “Her approach to the community is the reason why the community is so supportive of her. She is very open, she is willing to listen and is willing to give the girls that are here a chance and that’s why I think we as a community are here to support her.”