Sometimes, Bianca McNeil acknowledged, she aches to still be in there in the pool competing.

Now, though, she has settled into her role as the second-year coach of St. Joseph's boys water polo team.

"It's exciting teaching the next generation about the game," she said with a smile early into a Saturday team workout at Paul Nelson Pool, the Knights' home pool.

"Sometimes the hardest thing for me in the transition from being a player to being a coach is knowing what you're supposed to do — I had such good teammates who knew what to do — and communicating that to the players. Trying to teach them the larger things and the smaller concepts."

McNeil is a 2006 Santa Maria High School graduate. She was a productive player, mainly in the set position, first for Santa Maria, then for the inaugural Hancock College women's water polo team in 2015.

Between the time she spent her last day at Santa Maria High and the time she got back in the pool again, for Hancock, McNeil was busy.

"I worked in mission-type programs, first in Nicaragua and then for a couple of years in Argentina," she said.

"In Nicaragua, I worked for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps for two years teaching English. There was definitely a spiritual component (to the job), but it wasn't through any one church. In Argentina, I worked through Loyola Marymount University."

She earned her collegiate degree at the University of Santa Clara, but she was done with water polo until she played for Hancock.

"While I was at Hancock, I was taking classes toward a second degree," she said. Now, McNeil said, she works for Northern Santa Barbara County Special Olympics out of Santa Maria as as a sports coordinator.

McNeil got interested in coaching and, when she landed the St. Joseph job in 2016, long-time area water polo coach Charlie Bell who McNeil said told her about the position, assisted her. Now she's mainly on her own.

"Charlie is a local water polo legend, his father (Karl Bell, after whom the Santa Maria aquatics complex is named) is a local water polo legend, and Charlie just has so much knowledge," said McNeil.

"I worked very closely with him that first year. Then he was able to turn over the reins (in the St. Joseph boys water polo program). He still stops by practice sometimes, helping, giving the guys advice."

McNeil has seen her player numbers grow and, if the Knights' 2017 season opener was any indication, the program has made marked progress under her watch.

St. Joseph's team is about as green as its school colors, yet the Knights were competitive in a 10-5 loss at Nipomo. The Titans made it to the divisional quarterfinals in the CIF Southern Section Playoffs last year.

"(The Titans) were in the playoffs last year, and a lot of my guys are new," said McNeil.

"I thought they did great. We competed with them, and my goalies made a lot of saves."

She lets her players call her "Bianca," if they choose, but it's obvious McNeil is firmly in charge.

McNeil had her players' attention during timeouts at the Nipomo game. McNeil's tone was positive, but instructive at the same time.

Her tone wasn't sharp early into a recent Saturday practice, but her commands were firm.

"Don't dive in!," she told her players as they were about to start swimming laps. "Go feet first. If you come back for (the swimming season), you can dive in."

McNeil said, "Saturday practices are good. It's quiet. During the week, though, the Santa Maria Swim Club, and others, are there and it can get kind of noisy when you're trying to give instructions."

McNeil is happy to be speaking to a larger audience this year.

"We have 15 players this year," she said. "That's great. Last year we were down to nine.

"Everyone got some playing time (against Nipomo), and it's good that the freshmen and sophomores got some experience. It's good for the starters to know that we have enough players that they'll get a break."

Though the Knights are relatively unseasoned, they do have their leading scorer from last year, junior Ryan Galanski, back. Galanski scored three goals against Nipomo.

McNeil likes her team's collective attitude.

"It's good to have a crew come in that's ready to work," she said.

"We're very excited about this season. With the tournaments that we're in and so forth, it will give our players a lot of experience." 


Sports Reporter