John Wilson, goalie for the Menlo School boys’ water polo team, was no athletic prodigy. He played basketball and tennis and wanted to add a fall sport when he enrolled at Menlo.
He went to a summer water polo camp for his first dip into the water polo world and immediately wanted to become an elite goalie.
Four years later, Wilson has accomplished his goal. His performance in the cage this season helped lead the Knights to one of their best seasons ever, finishing with 23 wins. Wilson had a huge hand in the team’s success, finishing with an average of 10.6 saves per match, while giving up less than six goals a game. Considering the Knights were involved in 13 matches decided by five goals or less, you could make a case that every save Wilson made was huge.
“I definitely like see lots of shots,” Wilson said. “I just fit into this whole, big machine. Everyone on the team has their own personal responsibility. A lot of times, even though I end up seeing lots of shots, [they’re] shots we want (the other team to take).”
Wilson’s dominance on defense became a factor in the Knights’ offense as well. His ability to block shots allowed the Knights to leak out on offense and enable Wilson to trigger the counter attack. He finished the season second on the team in assists.
Wilson’s play helped the Knights reclaim the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division, after losing it to Menlo-Atherton in 2012. Wilson had 15 saves in Menlo’s 8-7 win over the Bears this season. In an 11-10 win over De La Salle, a North Coast Section power, Wilson finished with 19 saves. The Knights advanced to the Central Coast Section Division II championship match against rival Sacred Heart Prep. Despite finishing with 12 saves, the Knights came up short, 12-9.
Wilson was named PAL Goalie of the Year and was named Second-Team All CCS.
Now he is the San Mateo Daily Journal’s Boy’s Water Polo Player of the Year.
Not that it was easy for Wilson to ascend to those heights. When he went to Menlo coach Jack Bowen and asked him what he needed to do to become an elite goalie, Bowen was skeptical. As an authority on the position — Bowen is a former All-American goalie at Stanford, member of the U.S. national team and a national-caliber private goalie coach. He has a keen eye when it comes to goalie talent and he didn’t see it in Wilson.
Instead of crushing Wilson’s ambition, however, Bowen told him what he would tell any other player to do.
“As a youth sports coach, I hate to say, ‘You can’t do it,’” Bowen said. “He said this is truly what he wants and this is what I would tell any goalie. It’s a pretty obvious list.”
Bowen essentially told Wilson he would not only have to transform his game, but his way of life. He would need to work hard in the pool, hit the weight room and diet correctly.
And Wilson responded. He signed on with the Stanford Water Polo Club and received advance training. He hired a private goalie coach. He implemented a workout program and he changed the way he fueled his body.
“You want to talk about someone who has earned something, it’s John Wilson,” Bowen said. “John has made, by far, more progress than any player I’ve ever coached. … This is part of the culture of [our] program. … I think John benefited greatly from our culture.”
Bowen said the culture that has been created at Menlo is to make his players their very best: in the pool, in the classroom and in their daily lives.
“I’m so fortunate for the opportunity,” Wilson said. “I had never played [polo] before my freshman year. I literally did not know the rules.
“From the beginning, I just knew I liked the sport. The program’s message got through to me. Wanting to be the best, not just in water polo, but life and school. … Just taking that mantra of being your best and translating it to all aspects of your life.”
Wilson was not just handed the starting job, however. He had to battle with Spencer Witte, a junior who is also regarded as one of the top goalies in CCS. The two split time early in the season, but Wilson eventually took over the starting duties.
“[Witte] is, literally, one of the top five goalies in CCS,” Bowen said. “He just happens to have the No. 2 guy (as a teammate). It just became apparent [Wilson] earned the spot.”
Wilson credits Witte for helping him hone his skills.
“My relationship with Spencer, next to [Bowen], is primarily the reason I’ve been able to progress so much,” Wilson said.
Not only has Wilson’s hard work paid off in his high school career, it has afforded him an opportunity to play in college. He said there are several schools interested in him, but if he had to choose one, it’s an easy choice for Wilson.
“I have not committed yet, but I’m definitely looking to play at the next level,” Wilson said. “Stanford is my dream school, but there are so many great schools I’m considering.”