PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Purposely interrupting an athletic career is often ill-advised. But for UCLA goalie Sami Hill, taking a year off couldn’t have turned out better.
Hill, a senior, took 2012 as her redshirt sophomore year to join the US Women’s National Water Polo team and though she didn’t make the squad that went to the 2012 Olympics, she learned more in that year about the sport than she ever had before.
“I don’t think I would have been the player I am if I didn’t go,” Hill said. “I didn’t have to worry about school for that year, it was just nothing but water polo and focusing on that.”It wasn’t an easy decision for Hill. She was in position to compete for the starting goalie spot after her freshman year and the team was one of the favorites to win an NCAA championship.
“I was wrestling with the decision when I was deciding if I wanted to play on the national team,” Hill said. “I didn’t want to miss out on a college year and my friends but it was so good for me.”
UCLA head coach Brandon Brooks discussed it with Hill and thought it was a good idea, despite the fact he would be losing a talented goal keeper.
“I think it was great because it allowed her to give her a purpose training with the national team,” Brooks said. “We had a goalie and it was her senior year and we avoided this goalie competition. It also gave Sami a chance to mature. It was great all the way around.”
Hill believed she could have won the starting job, but was glad to have avoided the goalie competition.
“I could stay and try my best to beat her out, but at the same time I had this amazing opportunity to learn so much,” Hill said. “Then I could come back to UCLA and be a better goalie.”
Training with the national team not only made Hill more mature, it allowed her to focus on just water polo.
“I learned things with those girls that I never would have learned,” Hill said. “I soaked up everything. It was hard, but I’ve been able to apply what I learned and it’s been awesome.”
The goalie that Hill has become has been one to not only dominate her position, but also allow her to be a team leader. Hill led the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation this season in goals against average (4.73) and was named to the first team.
This year, though, she really became the voice of the defense, quarterbacking players into position running the defense, something else she learned on the national team.
“It doesn’t come naturally,” Hill said. “You don’t want to intrude and it’s a developed skill. I try every game to have solid and loud communication. I think it’s one of the parts of my game I have a lot of confidence in.”
Brooks has noticed the transformation of his goalie since returning from nationals.
“However much one person can mean to a team, she means it,” Brooks said. “Her experience, her communication, her talent, her competitive desire. It’s all a dream to coach.”
The two also have similar philosophies and Brooks feels in some ways like he has an additional coach.
“That’s a coach’s dream to have a coach in the water, an extension of yourself and she definitely provides that,” Brooks said. “It’s gotten to the point and maybe I don’t realize the luxury I have because I’m in it, defensively I almost don’t say anything and let her take over. If I do it’s almost like having too many cooks in the kitchen. We’ve been pretty darn successful because of it.”
Hill said the two relate so well because Brooks played the position.
“He’s the head coach of this team but he was also a goalie and on the Olympics so that was one of the biggest reasons I came to UCLA,” Hill said. “I have learned so much from him. I think we play similarly so I think it’s easy for him to teach me. I’ve been so grateful. The information I’m able to soak up has been great.”