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La Jolla Athletes of the Week: Max and Ari Stone have an extended family affair in water polo

Twins Max and Ari Stone play water polo at rival high schools — Max at The Bishop's School and Ari at La Jolla High.
(Courtesy of Stone family)

Twins Max and Ari Stone not only count on sibling support as fellow high school water polo players in La Jolla but also some championship advice from their eldest brother stemming from his prep days more than 20 years ago.

Max is coming off the boys season with the Bishop’s School team that reached the CIF San Diego Section Open Division final, while Ari is in the girls campaign for traditionally strong La Jolla High.

Oldest brother Adam competed on the 1999 Scripps Ranch High team that won the Division I title to start a family legacy in water polo that also has included three cousins.

Seniors Max and Ari, 17, play for schools that are crosstown rivals yet dismiss the notion of any sibling rivalry, since they started in the sport together at about age 8, even on coed teams for younger kids.

“We strive to make each other better, whether it’s in water polo, school or whatever we do,” Max said. “It’s a competition more than a rivalry.”

Ari cheered for Max at the Open Division final Nov. 13, when he scored a goal for the Knights in an 11-8 loss to Cathedral Catholic.

“We talk about water polo a lot in our family,” Ari said. “It’s a tradition right now. Sometimes we talk about how we play and what we can do to get better.”

It all started for the family of Ken and Julia Stone when Adam was spotted in a gym and later invited to play water polo by Tom Atwell, the current La Jolla High coach who was then at Scripps Ranch. Adam converted from swimming to water polo, a sport that was new to him.

“My first practice, I was totally hooked,” said Adam, now 38. “To throw a ball at a net, be with a team and be competitive in the water, I thought that was the greatest thing I had ever tried.”

“The more you work at water polo, the more it rewards you,” said Adam, who currently is in product management for a technology firm. “Then there’s the social aspect. To this day, some of my closest friends are guys I played water polo with.”

Adam attended the University of San Francisco, studied abroad in Hungary and played water polo there. He worked for U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) before returning to San Diego.

Benefiting from Adam’s early lessons were cousins the Vasquezes, the sons of Julia’s sister, Aurora. Beto, 32, who now coaches the men’s and women’s teams at San Diego Mesa College, played at Bonita Vista. He was followed by Memo, 30, also at Bonita Vista, and Esteban, 24, at Bishop’s.

Early swim lessons also were provided to Max and Ari, who subsequently turned to water polo.

Brother Ben, now 36, didn’t play water polo. The twins were born the year he went off to college.

Max didn’t eagerly dive into the sport initially. “When I first started water polo, I hated it,” Max said. “My mom took me to my first practice and it was like, ‘I’m never going back here.’”

After a couple of months, Max was urged to give it another try, and in turn, he began friendships that included fellow player Garrett Johnson, later his teammate at Bishop’s.

“I found people who supported me and made the game fun for me,” Max said. “It made me fall in love with the game.”

Max first attended La Jolla High and advanced to the varsity team in his sophomore year, when Adam helped coach under Atwell. Then Max transferred to Bishop’s, partly to follow his cousin Esteban at the school and reunite with Johnson for the perennially powerful program.

“It has been an amazing experience,” said Max, who is pondering college plans. “We were all so close and loved each other as brothers.”

Ari also had a moment of reckoning about water polo when she was about 10, even giving other sports such as gymnastics a try.

“I thought, ‘Do I like water polo? Or do I do it just because I’m in it?’” Ari said. “So I took a break for a little bit. Then I realized I really like it.”

Ari joined the La Jolla varsity team as a sophomore with a core of seniors who mentored younger players. In particular, she recalls bonding with senior Stephanie Babcock.

“I learned a lot from her,” said Ari, who also is weighing college options. “The same way I looked up to Stephanie, now I want to be a leader in that role.”

The Vikings lost in the Open Division quarterfinals to Cathedral Catholic last season.

When pools were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ari took up golf with the help of her father. She made the Vikings varsity team and became a three-sport athlete, since she also competes on the swim team, principally in the 500-yard freestyle.

“I’m super excited to have my last season of [prep] water polo,” said Ari, a center defender. “It’s great to be more back to normal this season with morning team breakfasts and practice. It’s a lot of fun.” ◆