For Kiley and Jamie Neushul, it was basically sink or swim. Raised near the beach in Goleta, Calif., their parents – Peter and Cathy – played water polo at UC Santa Barbara and coached the sport.
“It was like they were born to play water polo,” said Stanford water polo coach John Tanner of the talented sisters.
Kiley, a junior driver, was recently selected to the All-MPSF First Team for the third consecutive year. She has tallied a team-high 46 goals this season heading into Friday’s opening-round match of the National Collegiate Championship at USC, where the top-seeded Cardinal (22-1) oppose eighth-seeded Indiana (23-5).
Kiley played on the NCAA title team in 2012 and received the Peter J. Cutino Award as the nation’s top collegiate women’s water polo player, pouring in 58 goals. She also captured the ACWPC National Player of the Year Award. Last year, she scored 50 goals as Stanford fell to USC in the NCAA finals 10-9 in quadruple overtime, denying the Cardinal a three-peat.
Jamie, a freshman driver, was named to this year’s MPSF All-Newcomer team. She has contributed 20 goals and worked her way into the starting lineup, swimming on the same side of the pool as her sister.
“I started playing when I was six,” Kiley said. “My parents played, my uncles played, my grandfather played, my youngest sister (Ryann) plays, all of my cousins play. It’s a family thing.”
Two years younger, Jamie’s introduction to water polo did not go swimmingly.
“I was tiny, got drowned and hated it,” she said. “Couldn’t throw a ball. I stuck with it, but I was playing basketball and soccer because I liked those sports.”
When they were in the fifth and third grade, respectively, both were picked to play in the Junior Olympics in Florida.
“She (Jamie) mentioned spending about 90 percent of the game under water,” said Kiley. “I think she said the first five years of her life as a water polo player were spent beneath the surface.”
But Cathy pushed her kids, also junior life guards, and insisted they give 100-percent effort. Both are grateful she did.
“We were never afraid of failure,” Jamie said.
Early on, Kiley set her sights on Stanford. “It’s the jackpot,” she said.
Jamie considered a handful of schools, but picked Stanford over Harvard.
“I think it was just the better balance athletically and academically,” said Jamie. “I just wanted more competitive water polo.”
Growing up, Kiley was ultra-competitive. Naturally, that fueled her little sister.
“I kind of egged her on a little bit,” Jamie said. “If we were playing a board game and I was winning, she would refuse to finish the game. She just hated to lose and I was apathetic.”
Kiley insists Jamie still acts like she doesn’t care, but knows better.
“It’s all about perseverance,” said Kiley. “I think she has an extremely hard work ethic, although sometimes it may not seem like it in the pool because she is an emotionless player. When things go wrong, she has the same face as when things go right, which I think is a really good quality, especially for a water polo player.”
Jamie is Kiley’s biggest fan.
“She just has this amazing ability to read the entire pool and knows what to do with the ball before it even comes to her hand,” Jamie said. “She’s the most unselfish player I’ve ever had the opportunity to play with. She’s looking to pass the ball all the time and takes any opportunity she can to make her teammates look good.”
Tanner agreed with their assessments.
“Jamie is really poised, even-keeled and relaxed,” he said. “Kiley is explosive, fiery, dynamic and emotional.”
Not surprisingly, they are Sympatico in the pool.
“That comes from playing so many sports together,” said Jamie. “Just being in the setting of competition for so many years. I know her capabilities. I know where I can put the ball and how high to put the ball. If defenders are on her, she can still score. I can throw up these crazy passes sometimes that may look like I’m nuts, but I just know she is going to get it. It’s really fun to play that way.”
They played water polo together for two years at Dos Pueblos High and drove to school each day, but became closer when Kiley left for Stanford.
“I love swimming with Jamie,” Kiley said. “I show up every day for practice almost with a different attitude than I did the last two years. In the two years I was here and she was home, we became really good friends. It’s a treasure to be able to play on the same team.”
Added Jamie, “I’ll go get food with her all the time after practice. Before big games, she’ll tell me what to expect and what not to expect. Ever since we were young, she’s been my biggest supporter.”
Tanner has noticed a difference in Kiley.
“What’s really neat is seeing their relationship grow,” he said. “They interact more as adults than kids. Every day, they’ve got new stories.”
Jamie might pursue a law degree.
“I have talked to dad a lot about that because he’s somewhat involved in that area and I loved to argue with him when I was little,” she said. “He would always say, ‘You’d be a great lawyer.’ ’’
Peter is a self-employed writer and expert witness, while Cathy is a physical therapist.
Kiley is still pondering her future, but wants to play water polo after college for the “love of the sport not money.” She took a computer science class with Jamie and said, ‘When I got something to work, it was greater than winning an NCAA Championship.”
Initially, her Stanford experience consisted of two things: water polo and good grades. Now, she’s open to the possibilities.
“I was around these people that weren’t my parents or sisters,” Kiley said. “First you see them at some dorm event, then you see them further down the line and they’re building some company in their dorm room and its like, ‘Wow! Anything can happen here.’ ’’
Jamie is continually amazed by the new students she meets.
“I love to go around and ask people, ‘So what’s your thing? Why did you get into Stanford?’’’ she said. “That’s one of my favorite things to do because you learn all these crazy things they do.”
Like designing a self-operated underwater camera or starring in a famous movie.
“I just think it’s really cool to see people devoted to other things than sports,” said Kiley.
Not that the Neushul’s aren’t focused on Indiana and adding a fourth NCAA women’s water polo crown.
“I’m just super-excited,” Jamie said. “I’ve never been a player to stress out about games or get nervous, but I’m pumped. To compete for a national championship is unheard for so many people and I can’t wait to see what we do with it.”
Kiley said this year’s team is tight, but learned a valuable lesson last year.
“Talent doesn’t always prevail,” she said.
One thing Kiley is certain about is that her youngster sister will keep her head above water.“I could tell her some things that I’ve felt in the past NCAA’s, but she’s been in so many big games where a lot of people have been watching and she has performed almost every single time,” said Kiley. “I have no doubt that she’ll be ready.”