By Devin Golden
Luis Rosales and Taylor Mathis don’t consider themselves naturals in water polo. In fact, they admit it took a while for them to catch on.
Now both are considered leaders for Dalton’s high school water polo club.
Rosales and Mathis, two Dalton High School seniors, were selected as “players to watch” for the upcoming 2013 water polo season by the Georgia High School Water Polo Association. Dalton’s season begins at noon Saturday at the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department’s John Davis Recreation Center pool versus North Springs. The team plays again at 2 p.m. versus Southern Crescent.
Last season was the first for the Dalton water polo club, which is not associated with a single high school, and it was also the first time either Mathis or Rosales played the sport. Both needed some time to adjust, even if it took place in a comforting setting — the water.
Mathis swam on two winning relay teams as Dalton High School won the Georgia High School Association Class A-5A swimming and diving state title during the 2012-13 season.
“It was easier because I came from a swimming background,” Mathis said. “It was more the strategy of it that took time. All of it was new for it.”
There are seven players — including a goalkeeper — on each side. Players are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool and must swim the entire time. (A match is 32 minutes long and is divided into four periods.) To score, players must throw the ball past the goalie and into the goal, similar to soccer or hockey, and a team must attempt a shot within 30 seconds of gaining possession.
Players can pass to one another or swim with the ball but cannot protect possession by putting it under water. Offensive players cannot swim inside 2 meters of the goal if they have possession of the ball.
Mathis is an offensive setter, meaning he finds a spot about 2 meters in front of the opposing team’s goal and tries to gain position for a pass, then turns and shoots if he receives one. If he can’t turn and get a clean shot, he’ll pass back out to one of the surrounding wing drivers, a position Rosales commands.
“He’ll play in front of the goal and go against the other team’s biggest defender,” said Dalton water polo coach Charles Todd, who is also Dalton High School’s swimming and diving coach. “If you watch water polo in the Olympics, you’ll see those two getting really physical with one another.
“He’s one of our fastest guys, one of our most in-shape guys and has the best arm.”
Rosales is a left-hander who is part of the reason one of the team’s strength last year was speed.
“Luis has a good arm and good release,” Todd said. “He stays on the outside and tries to either get the ball to the setter or shoot.”
The GHSWPA stated its reasons for selecting Rosales and Mathis as players to watch: “The enclosed student-athletes have been compiled using a wide range of justifications, including those who are athletically talented in the sport of water polo, those who are considered to be the 2013 leaders of their respective teams, and those who show their coaches and teammates the passion and desire necessary to succeed in the GHSWPA and beyond.”
Todd said the reason they were singled out is because they developed into scoring threats for the Dalton team last season.
Rosales’ biggest hurdle was getting high enough out of the water to effectively shoot. Rules prohibit catching, holding or shooting with both hands, and the ball must stay above water at all times.
“At the beginning, it was a little rough,” Rosales said.
However, both Mathis and Rosales — and the team — improved as the year progressed. Dalton’s team, which includes players mostly from Dalton High School but also two from Northwest Whitfield and one from Coahulla Creek, finished sixth in the GHSWPA state tournament and compiled a 15-8 record.
“I couldn’t really tell (how good I was) until we started playing teams from Atlanta to compare myself to,” Mathis said. “It just took some time. I wasn’t any good at the start. By the end of the season, we all started getting pretty good.”
For Rosales, it took one full season before he started to see himself as a contributor.
“Toward the end of last year,” he said. “For a first-year team, we did really good.”