All-Area Girls Water Polo: Dutcher met challenge

Let's cut to the chase: Brooke Dutcher is the 2008 Sun-Star Girls Water Polo Player of the Year.

No surprise there.

The Merced senior was, by all accounts, the very best player on the very best team in the area.

Dutcher led her club in goals and finished second in steals and assists, helping Merced complete a perfect run through the Central California Conference.

Dutcher was at the forefront of everything special Merced accomplished this season.

"It was the level of play and how she practices," Merced coach Jon Dibblee said. "It's also about intimidation, because she has some fire to her.

"She plays at such a high level that it makes the others rise to that."

The numbers won't do Dutcher's last splash at Merced High justice.

Her journey will.

It wasn't always a smooth ride for Dutcher, the CCC's MVP.

In fact, she nearly lost her way a year ago.

Two games into the 2007 league season, Dibblee made a bold coaching decision -- one of the toughest, he says, in 20-plus years on the pool deck.

He decided to remove Dutcher, then a junior, from the starting lineup.

It was a test.

The longtime coach was challenging the mettle of one of his top players.

"Brooke has always had the potential, but I felt she wasn't focused," Dibblee said. "I wasn't happy with her play, so I pulled her out of the starting lineup.

"She wasn't happy and her family wasn't happy, but I was trying to motivate her.

"I told her she could respond in one of two ways: She could win the job back or she could say 'Poor me.' "

It was a risky move.

Emotion nearly got the best of Dutcher, who was blind-sided by the demotion.

She remembers being so mad and confused that she could have filled a small pool with her tears.

And that says a lot.

Dutcher isn't rattled easily. Not when it comes to water polo.

"It pissed me off when he did that," Dutcher said. "But I didn't want to show him that it bugged me, so I stepped it up.

"I wanted to cry. I was confused and frustrated," she added. "Looking back, it worked.

"When I sat out, I got to look at the game and see what I needed to do and what I needed to improve on. It helped.

"I don't mind that he did it now."

Dutcher earned her starting spot back in less than two weeks, developing the mental toughness to match her physical abilities.

Both blossomed this season.

Not only was Dutcher the most dynamic player in the pool, she was also the unquestioned leader of a young Merced team.

Dutcher scored a team-best 40 goals and drew 26 kickouts -- penalties where the opposing player is sent out of the pool for 20 seconds.

She was the anchor of Merced's defense at the 2-meter position (63 steals) and the lynchpin offensively (20 assists).

"I wanted to play better than the last few years," Dutcher said. "I wanted to go out with a good season.

"It was my senior season. The goal was to stay a starter the whole way through."

Dutcher did -- winning over her biggest critic in the process.

"As a coach you run a risk when you put it all on the line like that," Dibblee said."I absolutely appreciate the way she responded. It shows maturity, leadership and integrity."

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at