Aubry Hill is a strong player for the Costa Mesa High girls' water polo team, both literally and figuratively.
The senior defender strives to get better. She has improved her leg strength, her shot, basically her whole game.
Hill started playing club water polo and she enjoys swimming, so she's in the pool a ton. She's always loved the water, but when she was a toddler it nearly cost Hill her life.
She jumped in a pool at her foster parents' home without knowing how to swim.
"I ended up dying," Hill said. "I was dead, and then they brought me back to life."
She said she occasionally still has nightmares about drowning. Real life wasn't so great for Hill in her youngest years either.
She doesn't know her birth parents. She hasn't been with them since she was a year old. It was then that Aubry, her older brother, Dirk, and her younger sister, Kaitlyn, were placed in a foster home, where they stayed for more than two years.
Aubry has not gone looking for her birth parents. It's natural for her to call Pat and Dirk Hill mom and dad.
"We were taken away at a very young age," Aubry Hill said. "To me, being adopted is not that big of a deal. I don't know my parents, and I don't really remember them at all. I kind of like to block out my childhood memories. I don't really have many childhood memories that I want to keep, so I try to kind of force them away.
"Being adopted, it's definitely made me a better person. I realize that I can't take stuff for granted, because it can be taken away from you at any time. My parents were druggies and alcoholics. If we were still living under them, I don't know where I would be, or if I'd even be alive."
Pat and Dirk Hill gave the siblings a good life. Pat said they took them home on Sept. 4, 1999. Two days later, they celebrated Aubry's fourth birthday. When Aubry was in second grade, the family moved to Costa Mesa.
"We've let them know little by little what they needed to know," Pat Hill said. "We've let them know they were adopted the whole time. We didn't hide anything."
You can't hide Aubry's Hill's relentless work in the pool either. Now she and her sister are shining for Coach Tim Postiff's Mustangs (14-8), who sit at a strong second place in the Orange Coast League.
Kaitlyn, a junior, is a two-year starter in goal. Aubry, a co-captain with senior Kellie Thorsness, is an obvious leader as well.
The Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week is second on Mesa in both goals (46) and steals (35), and her defense is first-rate. She showed her improvement last week in the Battle for the Bell game at rival Estancia.
Aubry Hill scored four goals in Mesa's 20-4 victory, also drawing three exclusions and a penalty shot. As importantly, her defense helped hold Estancia senior Ilene Umansky to just two goals. Hill could do nothing about one of the goals, a heave from past mid-tank.
Umansky is a dominant player for Estancia, and leads Orange County in goals scored. Last year she had a big game as the Eagles nearly beat Costa Mesa, and Hill said she was determined not to let that happen again.
"I knew that I had to step up my game," Hill said. "If I let her score a bunch of goals, I knew that was going to be my fault. If we lost because she scored all of those goals, it would be my fault, so I needed to step it up."
Hill has done that for the Mustangs. She has come a long way since she was a shy freshman on junior varsity who didn't say much. Her sophomore year, she earned significant varsity time, though she was recovering from a shoulder injury.
She blossomed last year, when she earned first-team All-Orange Coast League and Newport-Mesa Dream Team status. And after the season she continued working hard, playing club water polo at the Junior Olympics. Now she plays for the Kahuna club.
Postiff said he told her last year he wanted to see improvement in her leg strength and her shooting. She's gotten better in both areas, good enough that she wants to both play water polo and swim in college. Sometimes she even shoots with her left hand.
"Both kind of go hand in hand — with better legs you're going to be a better shooter," Postiff said. "She was one of our primary defenders, and she was getting beat occasionally because she was getting pushed around. I also think that club helped her with that as well. She got to see how physical it is when you're playing at that level. With the combination of that strength that she gained and understanding how to use her physicality, she's become a totally different player for us.
"She'll get in early and warm up and use the weight belts, she'll stay late and use the weight belts. Even after we've put the weight belts away, she'll keep them on in shooting drills and things like that. She's just not afraid to work hard. She likes setting goals and seeing that come to fruition."
And she is humble. Hill said she never considers herself one of the best players on the team. She would rather hold the other team's best player in check than score a handful of goals.
"I definitely think I help, but so do all of the other girls," she said. "I definitely would be happy if I didn't have to score any goals. I personally like to see other people succeed on that end. But for defense, I've always been naturally aggressive. I'm definitely more into that."
So watch out for No. 6 in the pool. She continues to show that she's tough.
The Mustangs likely will draw a very tough first-round or wild-card CIF playoff match in Division 1. Hill said she's OK with that, because she likes the challenge. And she also has confidence in her team.
"A lot of our girls have improved a lot," she said. "It's not just Kellie and I doing everything now. We're more a team than we were last year and in previous years. It's a much better season than last year."
Her parents are very proud of all of their children. Aubry isn't letting an occasional bad dream get in the way of her dreams in the pool.
"When we got them they were fish, all three of them," Pat Hill said. "Aubry's loved the water since then."
Born: Sept. 6, 1995
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Tim Postiff
Favorite food: Spaghetti
Favorite movie: "Pitch Perfect"
Favorite athletic moment: "Just watching all of us progress throughout the years."
Week in review: Hill, a senior defender, had a strong match as the Mustangs routed rival Estancia, 20-4, on Jan. 16. She had four goals and drew three exclusions and a penalty shot, also playing stellar defense.