As coach of the St. Ignatius girls’ water polo team in 2012, Paul Felton used his best player to defend Menlo-Atherton’s Jessica Heilman.
Felton took over the M-A program this season and he found out it’s much better to have Heilman playing for you than against you.
“I know when we played [the top teams in CCS], their primary objective was to stop her,” he said.
Heilman was the key cog for the Bears this season. The senior helped lead M-A to the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division crown as well as a spot in the Central Coast Section semifinals. She was named team MVP as well as the Bay Division’s Player of the Year. She was also selected to the All-CCS first team and has a spot waiting for her at Brown University next year.
For her efforts, Heilman is the San Mateo Daily Journal’s Girls’ Water Polo Player of the Year.
Nominally a hole set, Heilman has the game to play any position on offense and Felton frequently moved her around the pool to give her goal-scoring opportunities.
“For M-A, set is my best position because my teammates do a good job of passing the ball into me and they trust me to score from set.
“I love to set, but I also love to shoot from the outside and drive and be as active as I can be.”
That movement paid dividends as Heilman finished the season with 104 goals. Even when she wasn’t scoring, she was opening up opportunities for her teammates.
“She drew a lot of double teams this year,” Felton said. “Which helped the rest of the team.”
But it was her work with the Stanford Water Polo club that really prepared her for the high school. With Stanford, Heilman focuses more on the defensive end, guarding the opposition’s hole set. It’s the knowledge she has as a defender that she believes gives her advantage when focusing on offense for M-A.
“I’m in a unique situation. I play set for high school and set defender for club. I know what the set defender wants to do. … I guess I can trick them a little bit (when I’m on offense) and take advantage of that.”
That knowledge works for her in other ways as well. Because she is so familiar with what a defender is trying to do to her, she can set them up and get them out of position, which leads to either a shot or a foul. Heilman drew 62 ejections against opposing defenders this year, and the Bears took advantage, scoring about 30 percent of the time.
“Forty (percent scoring on the man-advantage) would be great. Fifty percent would be off the charts,” Felton said. “Just from her experience, she’s able to get position. Any defender who is sitting behind her, [Heilman’s] going to have a good opportunity to score, so she always has the defender out of position.”
As good a player Heilman was on game days, Felton was equally impressed with her at practice and interacting with her teammates.
“She provided a lot of leadership and was willing to teach other players things,” Felton said.