Packaged deal for Paly polo
Johnson twins will double their efforts for Vikings' program
Since they started playing water polo in the seventh grade, twin brothers Brandon and Matt Johnson have been a team. Brandon scored goals and Matt blocked them. It was a formidable one-two punch that helped the two enjoy success at every level.
As 16-year olds in 2004, the two helped the Stanford Water Polo Club 16U Red team earn a bronze medal at the Junior Olympics. As high school juniors the same year, the two helped Gunn reach the Central Coast Section Division I finals before losing to Bellarmine. No Gunn boys' water polo team has advanced that far since then.
And, as college students at UC Irvine, Brandon and Matt helped the Anteaters to an 18-8 record and No. 5 national ranking in their senior year. Both players earned Player of the Week honors in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation during their collegiate days and Brandon was a three-time All-American. They both graduated in 2011.
While Matt majored in social ecology and Brandon in criminology, law and society, water polo was still in their blood. So, they headed to Australia to play professionally during the spring season in the U.S.
While they met that challenge, another was waiting for them back home. School administrators at Palo Alto High had dismissed the entire water polo coaching staff in November and the program still needed varsity and JV head coaches, plus staff.
Former Paly standout Jon Barnea, an assistant on the Stanford men's varsity team and who oversees the Stanford Water Polo Club boys' program, contacted the twins and told them they should consider applying.
"Since they left for UC Irvine, I have remained in good contact with them and we have always talked about the possibility of them coming back to the area to get involved in coaching," Barnea said.
Barnea not only got the 23-year-old brothers to coach the club teams, but both got hired on at Paly as the new head and JV coaches.
Brandon, who is 21 minutes older than Matt, is the Vikings' new head coach. Matt will assistant his brother in addition to guiding the JV team.
"We wanted to stay in Palo Alto," said Matt, who previously coached at Aliso Niguel High in Orange County while Brandon was assisting the men's team at UC Irvine.
The brothers missed out on a similar coach opening at Gunn, which was filled by veteran Stanford WPC coach Tim Kates. The former St. Francis High and Cal goalie got the job while the twins were in Australia.
"Coaching at your alma mater is always nice, but it is Palo Alto," Matt said of the new jobs. "We both wanted the head coach job (at Paly), but we decided as long as we put in the same time it didn't really matter. It's something he (Brandon) is looking to do as a career."
The Johnson brothers, who are back living at home because they hope to return to Australia in the spring, bring a lot to an empty table at Palo Alto High. The dismissal of the previous coaching staff, reasons of which were never made public, pretty much centered around head coach Giovanni Napolitano. His strong, European-based personality, demonstrative behavior and reported lack of communication didn't sit well with the Paly parents as the Vikings often struggled against teams they used to beat routinely.
When the staff was dismissed, the Palo Alto Water Polo Club was closed and its winter season canceled.
The Johnson brothers, however, have breathed new life into it.
"We have a great turnout," Matt said. "Basically, our whole varsity is here."
The brothers have been holding two-hour morning sessions at Paly, four days a week, since signing on. In the evenings, Brandon coaches the Stanford Water Polo Club 18-under White (B) team while Matt coaches the 16U White squad. Their worlds, these days, simply revolve around water polo.
"Paly has great athletic teams all around," said Matt. "We want to make water polo a sport where kids want to come out and play. We don't like to scream and yell and, if we do, we try to stay positive."
Since the majority of area high school teams practice and play either together or on club squads, Palo Alto was behind everyone else. The eventual goal is to keep all the Viking players together during the summer and compete in the Junior Olympics and other elite tournaments.
"At Paly, we have good, young players," said Matt. "We want to build a team, make a run at championships and make the program one of the best on the Peninsula.
Added Brandon: "Building a program is always fun. I know where we can be and I can't wait to get them there. I think we'll surprise some teams this year."
Before that happens, Brandon and Matt will coach their Stanford club teams in the SwimOutlet.com Junior Olympics, which is being held on the Peninsula next week. The boys' four-day tournament runs July 28-31, followed by the girls from Aug. 2-5. Area pools like Palo Alto, Menlo-Atherton, and Sacred Heart Prep will be used, with the medal matches set for Stanford's Avery Aquatic Center.
After that, the Johnsons will make plans on returning to Australia and continue their professional careers. The move, however, keeps the twins apart for one of the few times in their lives.
Matt plays in Brisbane and Brandon in Perth, which are on opposite sides of the continent.
"We only saw each other on weekends," said Matt, who Skyped with Brandon as much as possible. "It was definitely an experience to wake up in the morning and not have him there. I was his goalie for 10 years."
While both of their club teams enjoyed success, Matt said the separation was probably more difficult for Brandon due to "not having me behind him."
Matt's team went 19-3 and made the playoffs while Brandon's just missed. The brothers faced each other twice during the season.
"My team won both times," Matt said proudly.
Matt also did a good job of nearly shutting out Brandon, except for one occasion.
"Brandon scored once on me, a penalty shot," Matt recalled. "That was the only one he got in both games."
"It was fun to play against him," added Brandon.
Each pro team in Australia can have only two imports. Both brothers had their air fare taken care of in addition of the use of a car and house. Brandon also got $125 per week. Stanford grad and four-time U.S. Olympian Tony Azevedo, meanwhile, can make a living playing in Europe.
Thus, the twins are realistic about their future in the sport. When their pro careers end, they'll shift their focus to coaching.
"We'll try to keep this (Paly) program going year round," Matt said.
An ambitious plan, for sure, but one that's followed by other schools in the area. Matt and Brandon Johnson know of Palo Alto's success in other sports and they want to bring that to the water polo program.