Tanner Pulice is known as a rock for the Corona del Mar High boys’ water polo team.
The junior is easily the Sea Kings’ most talented offensive player, with 92 goals scored this season. Still, at 5-foot-10, he’s not overly physically imposing. Teams try to push him around and ultimately foul him out of the game.
Pulice keeps his cool, in and out of the pool.
“I can probably think of a specific instance for every single person on our team where they’ve had a breakdown emotionally, except for Tanner,” CdM junior center Gavin Reed said. “He’s the only person.”
In the water, things appear to be business as usual for Pulice. A gifted player, he was the first one off the bench for the Sea Kings as a freshman, and it is extremely rare at a program like CdM for a freshman to crack the lineup. Last July, he led the U.S. men’s youth national team in scoring as Team USA captured silver at the UANA Junior Pan American Championships in Florida.
The water polo doesn’t stop, but those around the CdM pool deck know what Pulice has gone through in the past five weeks. Pulice said the sport has provided a release for him, in the face of tragedy.
He lost his only sibling on the night of Sept. 21. Lisa Pulice said her older son, Toby Pulice, took his own life at their Newport Beach home. Toby, who had attended CdM as a freshman and sophomore and graduated from Monte Vista High last spring, was 19 years old.
“I worried about it every day of my life, so it wasn’t shocking to Tanner or me when it happened,” said Lisa, adding that Toby had battled depression. “But he graduated and he wanted to be an arson investigator. He was making plans … we’re still trying to figure out if something happened that day that really upset him.”
Lisa said that she and Tanner arrived home from separate CdM water polo get-togethers at about 10:30 p.m. Soon after, they discovered Toby.
Tanner sprang into action. Lisa said he went from a 16-year-old to being the man of the house, which he became in that moment. Lisa is a single mother.
“We’re Christians, and our faith is very important,” she said. “In that moment, he said, ‘Mom, God saved Toby. Toby is not suffering anymore. He’s OK, don’t worry, I’m taking care of it.’ He picked up the phone, he called 911, and the police and paramedics came. There were all of these people in the house, and he wouldn’t let anyone go talk to me. He pulled them off to the side and had conversations with them.”
Tanner Pulice had friends, like senior teammate Caden Strauss and senior standout Sophie Wallace from the CdM girls’ team, to immediately come over to help him get through that night. In the morning, he made a remarkable decision. He was going to suit up and play for the Sea Kings in the final two games of the South Coast Tournament at CdM.
“I’m super-glad I did it,” Pulice said. “I wasn’t so concerned with whether we would win or lose. I’m obviously a competitor and I want to win every game, but it was more about being with my brothers, being with my friends.”
The Sea Kings lost both of their games that Saturday, to Laguna Beach and Foothill, by one goal each. But nobody who was on the pool deck that day — from the CdM players, to the coaching staff, to Pulice’s classmates who came to watch and support him — will forget what happened.
“The closeness of that Saturday, what the team showed, is probably the most important thing that’s happened in my coaching career,” CdM coach Kareem Captan said. “They were trying to be there for Tanner, but they were also really trying to win a game, and it’s hard to expect a group of teenagers to do both at the same time. Coming away with two one-goal losses that day was pretty heartbreaking for them, but the most important thing for me was to see them come together as a team and really support Tanner and his entire family.
“It was a pretty powerful day. I told them at the end of the day, I’ve never been more proud of a team.”
Those moments continued in the immediate aftermath of the loss. The Pulices have no extended family in Southern California, but they were emotionally unable to come home after what had occurred. Teammates have helped fill that void.
Tanner and Lisa stayed with the Strauss family for a few days, then at the second home of the family of CdM senior co-captain Matt Ueberroth. Lisa said that Gavin Reed’s mother, Marlene, who is a real estate agent, helped them find a new home. They move in next month.
When the Sea Kings played a nonleague game at Riverside Poly on Sept. 28, Poly donated the snack bar proceeds to the Pulice family. Two days later, Captan arranged for U.S. women’s national team coach Adam Krikorian to come speak with Pulice privately, as well as the Sea Kings as a team. Krikorian lost his brother, Blake, to a heart attack days before the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
One thing Tanner hasn’t done is miss any school, or any water polo games or practices.
“I want my life to stay on track,” Tanner said. “For me, structure is a big part of my life. I’ve definitely found that being around people is the best way for me to deal with it and take my mind off things.”
Pulice has helped the Sea Kings (13-13), who were winless in the Surf League after the first round of league action, turn their season around. They won games over Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach in the second half of league, finishing in third place, and barely qualified to apply for an at-large bid for the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs with a .500 overall record. CdM will find out if it actually advances to the postseason on Saturday morning when the brackets are released.
It has been a challenging season for Tanner Pulice and the Sea Kings. But they are still standing.
“I’m a firm believer that you learn a ton from your losses,” said Pulice, who has lost a lot but only to come back stronger.
Born: Feb. 5, 2002
Hometown: Newport Beach
Height: 5 feet 10
Weight: 170 pounds
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Kareem Captan
Favorite food: Benihana steak and shrimp
Favorite movie: “Saving Private Ryan”
Favorite athletic moment: Helping the U.S. cadet men’s national team win gold at the Darko Cukic Memorial Tournament in Serbia in 2017.