Feature on the all-area water-polo players of the year, with the all-area team and final Super Six.

Madeline Steel laughed when she first saw the old pictures hanging in the meeting room by the pool.

"It's really funny because Barry [Creighton] has been coaching for so long, like 20 years, that none of us recognized him," said Steel, a senior on Winter Park's girls water-polo team. "His hair wasn't gray yet."

In addition to Creighton, Winter Park's coach for 21 years, assistant Catherine Jolly Hennes was in those snapshots of past Wildcats, celebrating three state titles as a player in the late 1990s.

Winter Park (22-6) has a rich history in water polo that has inspired Steel from a young age, similar to the effect that the successful program at Dr. Phillips (23-5) had on Evan Staton. They are the all-area Players of the Year.

Dr. Phillips' boys and Winter Park's girls have been to the playoffs every year since 2005, when the sport was sanctioned by the FHSAA.

"My coach played for Dr. Phillips when he was in high school," Staton said of ninth-year Panthers coach Leo Ramirez. "He would tell us a lot about the team's history, 'We've never beaten this team. They've never beaten us,' etc.

"I wanted to try to succeed and be successful in a way that he would remember."

Staton already has. The junior led his team to the state semifinals this year, collecting five school records: goals in a season (186), goals in a game (12), assists in a season (69), steals in a season (107) and steals in a game (15).

The Wildcats also reached the state semifinals behind Steel's 108 goals and 119 steals.

"Kids don't have a long memory about what happened in the past," said Creighton, who coached at Dr. Phillips for six years before Winter Park. "You kind of have to remind them that there's a history they need to contribute to.

"Madeline definitely has. She played in two state championship games, and was a huge part of our success this year. She had to do an awful lot for this team. She just made everything go for us."

Steel's history with Winter Park water polo extends beyond her own participation. She took the sport up in middle school after watching her sister, Deidre, play for the Wildcats. Staton also was inspired by seeing his brother, Ryan, in the pool for the Panthers.

Ryan had held Dr. Phillips' record for most goals in a season (124) since 2012, before his brother shattered it this year.

"Because water polo is not a sport that's very well-known, you almost know everyone who plays," Steel said. "It's a little community. That definitely comes into play when you talk about being motivated.

"We're a little family almost."

And Steel hopes to be part of that family until she has hair as gray as her coach's.

ardelgallo@tribune.com