For a club that’s only been around since December, Royal 559 Water Polo Academy is already making waves in the national water polo scene.
Royal 559 is an offseason water polo club for athletes ages 11 to 18 who want to train and compete year-round, said Nic Maes, director of boys water polo and head coach for the boys 18U team for Royal 559.
Gabe Putnam, a 15-year-old Buchanan High School student who was a starter on the varsity water polo team as a freshman last year, is one of those athletes.
Putnam can’t get enough of water polo. His drive and talent — not to mention the coaching he has gotten through school and club teams — earned him one of 13 spots on the USA Water Polo Men’s Cadet National Team that traveled to Hungary this summer for a tournament.
“It was kind of cool being there because in Hungary, water polo is their national sport,” Putnam said. “How people grow up playing baseball or football here, that’s water polo for them. So it’s just a different environment there.”
Putnam was the starting center defender for the USA team, which won each of the four games they played against the European teams to make it to their fifth — the championship game. Putnam and his team lost to the host team, Hungary, earning second place overall.
The 6-foot, 200-pound Putnam hasn’t been the only standout player for Buchanan and Royal 559. Four of his teammates also made the national selection camp as top players: sophomores Kaleb Archer and Zach Zetz, junior Anthony Tolbert and senior Kyle McKenney.
First, all five made it onto USA Water Polo’s Central California Zone teams, which play against 10 other zones in the country to claim the national title. California itself is split into five zones — Pacific (Northern California), Central California, Coastal California, Southern Pacific and Pacific Southwest — while the rest of the country is split into the remaining six zones.
“Gabe’s (16U Central California Zone) team won the national championship; they beat the top team from Orange County by one goal,” Maes said. “Putnam scored 3 in the championship game and Archer scored 2; they won 9 to 8.”
This was a huge upset.
A Central California team had never even made it to a championship game before, but they won this year, Maes said.
“Water polo is mainly dominated by Southern California teams and some Bay Area teams, so that was really awesome for the Central California team to take it,” he said.
Based on tournament play, athletes are chosen for national selection camps in hopes of being picked to play on the national teams through the Olympic Development Program.
“The ODP is a pipeline program with the goal of developing athletes for the Olympics,”
Maes said. “Out of 225 kids in tournament, they select top 48 to go to the national team selection camp. At that camp, Gabe was one of 25 selected for the Cadet National team, and from those, he was one of 14 selected for the travel team that went to Hungary.”
For Putnam, the road to the national water polo team started in fourth grade, when he was first introduced to the sport. He played for Alta Sierra Intermediate School and in eighth grade joined the USA Water Polo Olympic Development Program.
“The next year I made the 14U National Team, and this year I made the 16U National Team,” he said.
Building on a legacy
The Buchanan High School boys water polo team was undefeated (10-0) in league last year, but an upset loss to Golden West in the semifinals of the TRAC championships ended the season for the team.
Putnam’s goal is to help his team secure three Valley championships in the next three years and then go on to play in college.
“All of the coaching I’ve gotten from Nic Maes, Dave Pickford and David Maes really helps to get me to that next level.”
Pickford coaches the Buchanan boys water polo team while David Maes coaches Royal. Nic Maes coaches for both programs.
“Gabe is the first athlete that I’ve coached that’s been on the National teams,” Maes said. “But before him, Buchanan has had a little bit of a legacy of players in the National team pipeline.”
Maes listed 2007 graduate Zach Greenwood, who played on the Cadet National Team and Youth National Team while at Buchanan; Rick Merlo, a 2000 graduate who won a silver medal with the U.S. water polo team at the 2008 Olympics; and 1996 graduate Jeremy Pope who was on the Senior National Team for several years and won a national championship at Pepperdine University.
“We have a good history of quality players,” Maes said.
Looking toward the future
Maes described Putnam as a versatile player, excelling at playing center defender, but also stepping in to play offensive center when needed. He attends every practice and even makes it a point to show up at extra practices.
“He’s big, strong and really fast — that’s something that helps his game. He’s also really been improving his shot, making him a very potent scorer and a shutdown defender.”
Gabe Putnam swam the 100 backstroke, 500 freestyle and 200 freestyle events for the Buchanan swim team during the season at the direction of his coaches, but his heart is definitely in water polo.
“I like to play aggressive, a little too aggressive, because center defender is a pretty aggressive position; you have to fight the whole time,” he said. “I like to get up on counterattacks.”
He hopes to continue to train with the National Team.
“And maybe there is an Olympics to look forward to, but that’s a long stretch,” he said.
His coaches are looking forward to seeing him progress.
“We’re real proud of these guys at Buchanan as well as Royal 559,” said Maes. “Our club is coming up and we’re getting noticed right away. We’re jumping in against the top teams in the country.”
Royal 559 essentially replaced the longstanding Clovis Water Polo Club, Maes said.
“We started a new club to allow us to reach the potential we see with athletes in our area. There were some restrictions with Clovis Water Polo Club.”
The new club has opened its doors for players outside of Clovis to join and competes year-round with the top clubs in the nation, Maes said.
“Royal 559 is a new club in the area and we’re immediately making an impact in showcasing our players,” he said. “Our 18U Junior Olympics team has seven players who recently graduated and all seven are going on to play college water polo at either Div. I or Div. II schools, many on scholarships.”
Last weekend, Royal 559 sent 12 teams, six boys and six girls teams, to the Junior Olympics, “the premier tournament for age group water polo,” in Palo Alto, Maes said. Results will be posted in next week’s Independent.