Leaders can only take a team so far; the best teams solidify when the sum of all parts are working together in unison.
That unwavering philosophy has carried Sophie Gemelas for the better part of her water polo career, even at times when coaches and teammates recognize her skill and competitive streak is matched by few others in the pool.
The former Madras water polo team standout just wrapped up her sophomore year at the University of Oregon, where she has grown into a centerpiece on the women's club water polo team, most often playing from the two-meter defender position and tasked with preventing the opposing player nearest to the goal form scoring.
Her play on this year's team, which finished third in the College Water Polo Association Northwest Division regionals, earned her CWPA first-team honors, as well as the "Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year" award at an end-of-the year UO club sports banquet. Yet she cautions against defining herself as a leader, instead focusing on fulfilling her role the same way her teammates fulfill theirs.
"Still to this day I don't feel like I've ever been in a leadership role," Gemelas said. "I don't think you can be; people look to you for leadership or advice, but really, you're just a stoke in the wheel … Everybody has small leadership roles in the grand scheme of things.
"I've never felt like I was in a leadership role, and that's a good thing; I don't really want to feel like that, because if everybody is working equally, that's where you find the best results."
Certainly that was the case during Gemelas' senior year, when the Madras girls' team captured the 5A/4A championship in November 2014 — the first and only title in the team's relatively short history.
The title was a culmination of calculated development that began in 2008 when then-head coach of the Madras Swim Team, Bobby DeRoest, started the water polo team in the newly constructed Madras Aquatic Center.
A master of recruitment, according to Gemelas, DeRoest introduced youth swimmers he coached in MST to water polo, where the endurance they built up from swimming made them better sprinters for the sport. Between the two, many kids, including Gemelas, were competing in aquatic sports year- round.
"We were strong swimmers who had a fundamental understanding of water polo by the time we were freshmen, and we just kept building on from there," she said.
By the time they won state in 2014, DeRoest had moved on to coach at David Douglas in Portland, but his fingerprints remained on the program. Doug Calvin took over as head coach and made sure the team didn't miss a beat. Playing with a core group of players in Aurora Gerhardt, Cirelle Frank and Melissa Field, Gemelas says to this day it was the most tightly-knit team she's ever been a part of.
When Gemelas began her freshman year at UO the following fall, she had to choose between water polo and swimming, both of which are club sports at the university. She met older members of the water polo team, Chloe Talbert and Emily England, who were integral in convincing her to join. She then attended a couple dryland and bonding practices, which "sealed the deal," she said.
She joined a team that had won 11 of the last 12 Northwest Division titles to qualify for nationals. She was also thrust onto a team full of players from California, where water polo is more established than Oregon in the high school ranks. She acknowledged feeling timid at first, but was also thankful to collaborate with teammates by learning each other's different playing styles.
Before long, Gemelas had earned a bench spot on the "A" team. When a rash of injuries depleted the team's depth, head coach Steffen Land gave her more time to rotate in.
It became apparent quickly to Land that Gemelas had the makings of a versatile player.
"She knows that she's good, but I don't think she realizes how much better she actually is and can be," Land said. "I'm actually very excited to see her further develop. I've seen it a little bit already happening last year where she was stepping up and taking a little bit more responsibility and ownership. But I also noticed that I think she struggled a little bit with that responsibility and feeling that it was on her shoulders."
As her sophomore year began and several key players had since graduated, Gemelas and a large group of fellow sophomores took on more important roles. All of a sudden, Gemelas found herself with a certain duty to younger players still finding their bearings in college water polo.
"As the season progressed, I became a little bit of a, I don't want to say coach, but I felt a sort of responsibility to get everybody used to each other, especially as we were adding on new players," Gemelas said. "It was difficult, because there were lots of people to keep track of."
The team entered regionals with the No. 2 seed behind University of Washington, and felt it had a fighting chance to advance to nationals. In the semifinals against Oregon State, UO possessed the ball with less than 30 seconds left, holding a one-point lead.
They tried to run out the clock, but the plan backfired. OSU stole the ball and scored a game-tying goal to the send game to overtime. With its momentum deflated, UO lost 9-6, and settled for third place.
"I feel like we just shut down a little bit," Gemelas said. "We definitely had the capability of beating them ... Just one of those games, but hopefully that won't happen next season."
Like Gemelas, Land is looking ahead to next season. In the back of his mind, Land has begun thinking of ways to encourage Gemelas to do more out of her comfort zone. Although she relishes her position on defense, she's shown the ability to take shots from the outside and score. Land sees potential for her to become more assertive on offense, perhaps even lead attacks from the center. And if Gemelas add new looks to her game, it will benefit the team as a whole.
"On perfect teams that work together well, it's that perfect balance between individual superstars and the collective of the team," Land said. "You can't have one and not the other. You need to have both."
Aside from the team, her own success was recognized at the end-of-the-year UO club sports banquet when she was honored as an outstanding female athlete. Gemelas said she was humbled to receive the award, but wasn't sure what she did to earn it.
Her parents, Jim and Michele Gemelas, only found out she'd been honored when they saw the award tacked on to her bedroom bulletin board during a recent visit to Eugene.
"She deserves that (award)," Land said. "She's incredibly competitive, but she doesn't celebrate her own accomplishments as much as I think she should."
Gemelas has stayed in Eugene for the better part of summer, taking classes and working towards her double major in cinema studies and media studies. In the last couple weeks, she's helped lead a couple water polo clinics for girls 12 and older at a local pool, teaching girls fundamentals, set up of the game and a general overview of the sport. She's also considered helping coach the Willamette High School water polo team as an assistant, although she hasn't committed to it for certain.
As her busy schedule allows, Gemelas finds time to practice with her UO teammates, all of whom have their sights set on a run at the Northwest Division title next season, and a trip to nationals. She has at least two more years of college water polo left to play, and by her coach's estimation, plenty of room to grow her skills in the pool.