Moving away is always a difficult thing to do. No matter the age, moving away from the people you made bonds with and the places you grew attached to is something that most would like to avoid.
Sometimes though, moving away to a new place is the only option to keep on doing what they love. This is true about UCSB’s own Mitchell Hamilton, a junior sociology major who had to leave his dream school to come to Santa Barbara and continue doing what he loves most: playing water polo. It is a decision he certainly has come to love and embrace.
Hamilton grew up loving water polo. He was a star polo player in high school, leading his team to four league championships. He was also honored with achievements such as First Team All-America and First Team All CCS. However, he says he owes all his success to his mother, the person who encouraged him to play such a demanding sport.
“I started playing water polo when I was in seventh grade,” Hamilton said. “My mom was the one who pushed me into water polo and I really owe a lot to her.”
Being the great high school player that he was, Hamilton had many options to continue his playing career. Ultimately he settled on Cal, a school he admired growing up, not only for its academics, but also its consistently good water polo program.
Hamilton seemed to have made the right choice at the time. As a freshman, he scored 16 goals for the Golden Bears and was a key player on the team. Cal eventually made it to the MPSF Championship against USC before losing the match 9-5. Still, as a freshman Hamilton played a big role, scoring two goals in that game, a good sign for the future.
As a sophomore, Hamilton again registered 16 goals along with 15 assists. Once again he was a big factor on the team even though it didn’t make a run as deep as the year before.
“I loved Cal. The players were great.” Hamilton said. “I liked the competiveness that went on in practice. I felt like everybody was really fighting for a spot to travel every practice.”
Although Hamilton showed great promise and had a great two years at Cal, something always bothered him. He kept on having troubles with the coaching staff. The issues got so bad that he decided to leave the water polo program after his sophomore season.
“After a while I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the coach, which is why I left the program.” Hamilton said. “I didn’t want to play for him anymore. It was a tough personal choice.”
Hamilton now was faced with the toughest choice of his young adult life; to return to Cal without ever playing water polo again or leave the school he loved. He decided to take a semester away from school to really think about what he wanted, working as a math tutor and caterer in the meantime.
“It was actually really fun,” Hamilton said happily. “It was nice to make some money and just take time off. My family was also very supportive, something I am thankful for.”
While Hamilton was deciding his next step during the 2014-2015 campaign, the UCSB water polo program was suffering its worst season ever. The Gauchos finished 11-15, winless in conference play, and finished seventh place in the MPSF championships.
Head Coach Wolf Wigo knew his roster was more than talented to make a better run next year but he also knew getting a player like Hamilton wouldn’t hurt. The two were almost meant for each other. Hamilton needed a new start and Wigo needed another attacker to replace Eric Van de Mortel, who graduated after last season as one of UCSB’s top offensive players.
“When Wolf reached out and contacted me, he really highlighted the great opportunities I would have at UCSB,” Hamilton said. “And the guys on the team are all a bunch of winners, which are the type of people I like hanging out with.”
Ultimately, Hamilton was swayed and decided to come play his remaining two years of eligibility at Santa Barbara, a decision that has been beneficial for everyone involved.
Since coming here, Hamilton has set new career highs in both goals scored and steals with 21 and 18 respectively. He has also become a team leader and is a guy that the whole locker room respects.
“My new career highs are cool but I’m not worried about that,” Hamilton said. “I’m just really happy to be on such a great water polo team and contributing to wins.”
Hamilton’s modesty is admirable; however, his head coach knows that he is a big factor on this team and is happy that he decided to join.
“He’s the fastest guy on this team,” Wigo said. “He helps with the counter-attack and he’s a great player enjoying a great season. He’s also a guy that works everyday as hard as he can and sets a good example for the younger guys. I’m really proud of him.”
Hamilton is not just a hit with the coaching staff, but also with the players. He is a great locker room guy that the players love being around. This is no more apparent than with seniors Derek Shoemaker and Chris Whitelegge.
“He plays a huge role on this team and his shot is deadly,” Shoemaker said. “He’s my roommate and I love hanging with him. He’s a great influence and he’s been a great teammate.”
“He’s just such a skilled player.” Whitelegge added. “I remember playing against him when he was at Cal and he was good then, I’m glad he plays for us now. He’s great to be around and his positive energy constantly rubs off on the team.”
With the seniors departing soon as the season is coming to an end, Hamilton will be the new face of UCSB water polo, something that he has earned with his great play and something he hopes to keep living up to.
Ultimately, leaving Cal was very hard, but it seems to have paid off for Hamilton. He has been able to be a factor on a team that has been very welcoming of him and he has come to love the atmosphere of Santa Barbara in general.
“I love the ocean, and the girls are beautiful here,” Hamilton jokingly said. “I just really love it here and I love this team. I love being back on a team with a bunch of great dudes, playing a game I love. SB is beautiful and everybody seems like they are happy to be here.”
Leaving is certainly a tough thing to do, but sometimes in the end, it is worth it. It has worked out for Mitch Hamilton and it has most definitely worked out for anyone associated with UCSB water polo. Thank you, Cal.
A version of this article appeared on page 14 of November 12, 2015’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.