The first time Josh Simmons faced off against the Seattle-based Rain City water polo team, at a tournament two months ago in the Seattle area, he was learning.
In that second match, Simmons improved.
So when it came to finding a replacement in goal for this weekend’s Junior Olympics in Anaheim, Calif., why not the rising junior at Coeur d’Alene High, right?
“They’re a really strong team,” said Simmons, of Hayden Lake. “They’re a tough team. I’d just started playing goalie the first time I played against them, and it was very challenging. The next time, I was a little more experienced and was able to defend myself and block more shots.”
Since that tourney two months ago, the Rain City team’s goalie of four years wanted to switch positions, and the call came to — and was answered — by Simmons.
“When they asked me to play, I was honored because they’re such a good team,” Simmons said. “They’ve gone to the Junior Olympics the last three years and are really good. They didn’t have many other players that could play in goal and pretty much needed an extra goalie.”
At first, Simmons wasn’t totally sold on the sport as a kid.
“I first started with going to the Kroc Center and learning how to swim,” Simmons said. “Eventually, I wanted to learn more on how to swim, so I joined the Squid Squad team at the Kroc. Every once in a while, they’d play water polo so I tried it out, and I hated the sport. It was too tiring and I just gave up on it then.”
A year later, and with the help of his brother Dan, he gave it another shot.
“He really wanted me to come play it,” Simmons said. “So I started to play again three or four years ago, and I’ve been playing ever since.”
Simmons credits getting more skilled in the pool as a reason he has enjoyed the sport this time around.
“I started swimming a lot more and competing on the Coeur d’Alene High swim team,” Simmons said. “And then I really just started to love swimming. I wanted to see if there was another sport other than that, and remembered water polo and thought I’d give it another chance. I’m a lot more fit than I was before and I’m a way better swimmer than I was before.”
Water polo is played in a 98x65-foot pool that is at least 6 feet deep. Goals are 9 feet across and 3 feet high. Matches are played in four six-minute quarters.
Simmons’ strategy for keeping his head above water is simple.
“The key for me is the egg beater technique,” Simmons said. “You rotate your legs clockwise and counter clockwise, and if you do that hard enough, you can stay above water a little longer than five seconds or so. And that’s long enough to either block a shot or take a shot.”
And the more he plays, the more he knows to remain focused on the action, no matter what end of the pool the game is being played on.
“I just know what to expect after practicing for so long,” Simmons said. “You know you’re going to get hit with a ball — probably in the face — which has happened to me a lot. Just know that’s going to happen keeps me alert.”
“He’s been playing with us for a few years, and he’s really came a long way,” said Mark Collingham, who played water polo for the Washington State club team, and who coaches both the Coeur d’Alene High and Kroc water polo club teams. “When he started, he hadn’t played, but really took over the position. Over the last few months playing for Rain City, and when he was invited to play with them, he took a step up and we’ve seen his improvement a lot. When players first start, they’re not too sure about it. But the more they play, the better they get.”
While he didn’t turn out for the Coeur d’Alene swim team as a sophomore, he plans to return to the program in the fall.
“I used to play soccer, baseball and basketball, and still do some of that for fun,” Simmons said. “I’m probably going to get back into the swim team because I had so much fun doing that.”
He admits however, that taking time away really helped him in the long run.
Simmons traveled to the Seattle area on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for practices with the Rain City team over the last month to prepare for the Junior Olympics. He still competes with the Coeur d’Alene High club team at the Kroc as well.
The 48-team Junior Olympics tournament begins today and runs through Monday in Anaheim.
Practices at the Kroc aren’t your ordinary practices either.
“What we do is practice against college teams like U of I (Idaho) and Montana State,” Simmons said. “We’ve got some Masters teams that come in and older people that come and play with us. And that helps us and me train.”
At first, Simmons admitted it was a little intimidating.
“You see some of the bigger guys that are huge and think, ‘they’re going to destroy me,’” Simmons said. “But I know what to do, and if I watch what they do, I can block their shot. And the more we practice with them, the better I can understand what they do.”
Simmons attends the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy in the fall.
“I enjoy music and really want to go to college for that,” Simmons said. “But I’ve also thought about going into software engineering. I still want to continue to play water polo.”
While its not a sanctioned sport, the state water polo championship will be contested Jan. 26-27, 2018 at the Boise Aquatics Center. Coeur d’Alene beat Bishop Kelly 12-5 in the championship match in 2016, the program’s fourth straight title.
When it comes to goals this weekend, Simmons has one in particular in mind.
“I’ve been working on my full-court shots,” Simmons said. “I’ve been trying to score a goal all year. Last year, it happened to us late in a match, and I really want to do it.”