San Ramon Valley aims for another NCS title behind one of the country’s best young players
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
Everybody knew who was taking the shot.
She was double-teamed — just as she had been nearly the entire match — but once Kat Klass got the ball, nobody expected anything less than what unfolded. Klass created just enough space for herself and fired a bullet past the Campolindo-Moraga goalkeeper with 29 seconds remaining and the host San Ramon Valley girls water polo team stayed unbeaten with an 11-10 victory on Oct. 4.
Out of the water, Klass blends in almost seamlessly with her teammates. At 5-foot-8, she’s a touch taller than most, but as one watches the team work its way through a postgame handshake, picking out the player with National Team experience isn’t as easy as one might think.
In the pool? There’s no question.
Klass cuts through the water, using her long arms and legs to her advantage. She exhibits a steely competitiveness and a persistent strength against constant double teams. It’s evident from the first few possessions, THIS is who you’re here to see. She’s the one to keep an eye on.
“The first thing I noticed was her length,” said Women’s Cadet National Team head coach Natalie Benson, who coached Klass this past August with the Women’s Youth National Team contingent that won gold at the Youth Pan American Championships in Argentina. “And her speed. When looking for characteristics in a player, long and quick is always a good place to start.”
Strong bloodlines don’t hurt either.
Just how old Klass and her two two-years-younger sister, Sarah, were when they realized their father was somewhat of a big deal in the sport is a topic of some debate.
Craig Klass grew up in Walnut Creek and graduated from Las Lomas High before attending Stanford where he was a three-time NCAA All-American from 1983-85 and the NCAA Collegiate Player of the Year in 1986. He was a member of the U.S. National Team for seven years, which included winning silver at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, and a 4th-place finish in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. He was elected to the U.S. Water Polo Hall of Fame in 2000.
“I know I used to go to the elementary schools and put on all the Olympic gear and give my little talk,” Craig Klass says with a chuckle. “So they probably had some idea.”
Kat Klass claims she’s still realizing it even now.
“The water polo community is a small one, and he just knows so many people,” she said.
That same community is getting to know Kat. After being named First Team All-North Coast Section Division I as a freshman in 2011, she put together a phenomenal sophomore season that included 132 goals and East Bay Athletic League MVP honors. She quickly found herself on the national team radar and was placed in its Olympic Development Program (ODP) before making her first team this past summer for the Youth Pan-Am Games.
Now, in her junior year, she’s leading a squad featuring multiple freshmen — including her sister — on a course to defend the NCS Division I title the Wolves won a year ago. The victory over Campolindo, which was the defending NCS Div. II champ, moved San Ramon Valley to 13-0 and kept them as the heavy favorite to repeat.
“We just need to keep working and stay humble,” Kat said. “We can’t get caught up in it because people are targeting us now.”
And it would be fair to say, that people — and entire teams — are targeting Kat now too. That’s a challenge she wants.
“As her coach, it was hard not to notice her desire to get better and how seriously she takes every opportunity she has,” said Benson, who played for the Women’s National Team and was an Olympian in 2004 and 2008. “She was almost too hard on herself at times, and that reminded me of myself a little … Because of her attitude and how hard she is willing to work, she will do great.”
That determined personality and drive is something Kat has always carried, according to Craig Klass. She played multiple sports growing up, including swimming, softball, basketball and soccer. The latter she hung on to the longest, playing it into middle school.
“Her achilles heel in soccer was that she wasn’t one of the faster players, even though she played attacker,” Craig Klass said. “Coming into water polo, she had all those attacking skills, but could also swim really fast.”
And toward the end of her sixth-grade year, soccer was being phased out as water polo slowly became the new passion.
“I’d come home and I’d be so tired from trying to stay afloat during practice,” Kat said of her first year playing. “I thought it was a hard sport, but it rewards hard work and I really liked that. Because I’m one of those people who likes to work hard and isn’t content just being good enough.”
She remembers her first competitive matches taking their toll, but simultaneously fueling her motivation.
“I was really skinny still and not very strong,” Kat recalled. “I remember getting dominated by the other girls and I was like ‘One day I want that to be me.’ Not necessarily beating up on smaller players, but being strong enough to completely dominate the game and control every one out there.”
When it comes to the high school arena, it’s safe to say she’s reached that level. Now she keeps an eye out for her sister, who starts for the Wolves and is getting to play on the same team with Kat for the very first time. Craig Klass is at each match, too, acting as perhaps the most-qualified assistant water polo coach in the state.
But what did Kat learn in her first international experience?
“It definitely made me want to work even harder,” she said, “to come back next year and make the Youth Worlds team. It made me want to get a spot on that team that’s going to Spain. I belong here, and I can do this.”
She won’t get any arguments from Marcelo Leonardi, the current National Women’s Youth Team head coach who was also on the coaching staff with Benson in Argentina.
Leonardi, who is also the Women’s National ODP Technical Director, has worked with Klass for a little more than a year now.
“The sky is the limit (for her), honestly,” Leonardi said. “She’s just scratching the surface at what she can do. It’s just a matter of time, preparation and full-time training. One of the most important things for her, is how she exposes herself to every opportunity to get better.”
That will include taking part in the USA Water Polo’s Futures 50 Classic event from October 25-27 in Santa Ana. The event brings together 50 of the top women’s water polo athletes in the country and divides them into four teams to compete in round-robin play. Among the players Kat will share the pool with are 2012 Olympic gold medalists Maggie Steffens and Annika Dries.
For Klass, it’s simply one more step in a determined path to follow in her dad’s footsteps — the same determined path that will more than likely help her lead the Wolves to another NCS crown.
“The moment that you think you’re good,” she says, “is the moment you need to start working harder.”
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