Water polo standout to leave Sunny Hills with a multitude of awards as she pursues a Division 1 career at Iona College

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Kaya Hart (center) prepares to take a shot during a 16-5 victory over Fullerton at the Troy High School pool on Jan. 22. 

Esther Oh

When senior Kaya Hart first started swimming at the age of 12, she didn’t expect to be recruited to a Division 1 program, and she certainly didn’t expect to be recognized as one of the more prominent players in recent Sunny Hills water polo history. 

Hart, who has also been a part of the SOCAL Water polo club for four years, signed to Iona College Feb. 5 on National Signing Day and is excited to travel to New Rochelle, New York, for school. She was scouted for a position different from her high school water polo position, but she is excited for the change.

“College will be more about making plays rather than finishing them, and I’m really excited for that change of role,” Hart said. 

Recognized as the Freeway League Player of the Year for the 2019-2020 season, she was selected to be on the Division 3 CIF-SS first team, after spending her junior year on the Division 4 CIF-SS first team.

“I feel honored,” Hart said. “It’s awesome that the coaches who saw me play thought that I had the talent and deserved to make [the first team].”

By the end of the 2019-2020 season, Hart scored 100 goals, had over 20 twenty field blocks and was a team leader in steals.

As one of the top scorers in SH water polo history, Hart spent 18 hours a week in the pool and gym during the high school water polo season. During the summertime, she put in about 25 hours a week between weight training, club practice, high school practice and games.  

“Training during pre-season is the hardest since we do a lot of conditioning, but I think it really helps to bring the team together because we lean on each other to mentally last a long and exhausting practice,” she said. “Summer training is more fun since we have time to improve without the pressure of CIF or league titles being determined when we play.”

Hart mentioned that her love for the game allowed her to stand out from other athletes. She put in extra practices and more training than what was asked of her. 

“[After] every game, I felt like I worked hard, and I would think about what I could do to improve,” she said.

Water polo head coach Keith Nighswonger commends her for her talent, effort and positive nature.

“Kaya is the rarest of athletes,” Nighswonger said. “She has college D1 talent, a burning desire to improve, and most importantly, she is coachable and a great teammate.”

The athlete first started swimming as an elementary student without planning to also play water polo. Her two older brothers—both of which played water polo—pushed her to play the same sport as them, thus which led her to pursue swimming, and eventually water polo in high school. 

“At first I didn’t really want to play polo at all, but my coach and teammates made me realize how great the sport is,” she said. “As a freshman, I immediately fell in love with water polo.”

Senior Rachel Loomis, one of Hart’s teammates and co-captain of the SH girls water polo team, praises her for being focused and calm during any given situation.

“I think her biggest strength is how she [is] able to keep her head in the game under any and every situation,” Loomis said. “She also made sure her teammates were focused and ready.” 

In her sophomore year, SH assistant varsity and head junior varsity coach Jordan Jamie told her that the only thing holding her back was her mindset. Her coach’s words kept her motivated throughout her years as a water polo athlete

“He told me to think about it as a team sport rather than thinking that I brought my team down,” Hart said. “He reminded me that everyone makes mistakes, but it’s after those mistakes that will drive success in the future.”

The athlete said the best parts of the sport for her were the friendships she made while playing water polo. 

“I am so grateful for the friendships and opportunities water polo gave me,” she said. “I was able to step out of my comfort zone and learn how to be a good teammate and leader.”