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Swimming scholars: Two water polo players head to college with ‘cumulative’ MVP awards from La Jolla High

Dave and Joyce Abrams, Gavin Olson and Tom Atwell
Dave and Joyce Abrams, Gavin Olson and La Jolla High School water polo coach Tom Atwell gather July 14 for a ceremony presenting Olson with the Matthew Abrams Memorial Most Valuable Player Award.
(Courtesy of Dave Abrams)

Two recent La Jolla High School graduates were awarded scholarships for their water polo prowess, both calling it an honor while noting that water polo is very much a team — and community — sport.

The Matthew Abrams Memorial Most Valuable Player Award went to La Jolla High 2022 graduate Gavin Olson.

Olson, who finished with a 4.75 grade point average and will attend UCLA in the fall, “was definitely our most valuable player,” said Vikings water polo coach Tom Atwell. “He went from being a primary goal scorer to … distributing the ball as well and becoming a playmaker and a field general.”

Atwell said Olson was “a big part of our success as far as helping run both the offense and the defense ... as a team captain and being the consummate team player.”

The Brittany Russell Spence Lead From the Front Most Valuable Player Award went to LJHS 2022 graduate Roxy Hazuka.

Brittany Russell Spence, Roxy Hazuka and Tom Atwell
Brittany Russell Spence and her daughter stand with Roxy Hazuka and La Jolla High water polo coach Tom Atwell. Hazuka received the 2022 Brittany Russell Spence Lead From the Front Most Valuable Player Award.
(Courtesy of Dave Abrams)

Hazuka, who finished high school with a 4.7 GPA and will play water polo at Brown University, “has demonstrated great leadership as a student-athlete and she has incredible grades,” Atwell said.

As a goalie, Hazuka has to be a leader “because you’re in charge of the defense,” Atwell said.

The awards, which were given to Hazuka and Olson at a poolside ceremony July 14, are decided annually by the school water polo coaches, including girls coach Amy Jennings.

“We look at the kid over the course of four years,” Atwell said. “It’s a cumulative award.”

Each award comes with the winner’s name on a plaque at the Coggan Family Aquatic Complex on the La Jolla High campus and a $1,000 scholarship that can be used for anything the winner wants.

Olson, who has played water polo for about 11 years, said he was “super proud” to win the Matthew Abrams award, which was begun in 2019 by La Jollans Dave and Joyce Abrams as a way to memorialize their son, a 1999 LJHS graduate and water polo team MVP that year who died of cancer in 2018.

“The Abramses are a super nice family and I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Olson said.

Olson said he loves water polo because of “how physical it is. It’s fun to be in the water. I’ve been in the water since I was a kid.”

He said he’ll miss the intensity of the Vikings’ water polo seasons. “We would always just be together. … We always came together as a team for those three months.”

After the creation of the Matthew Abrams boys’ award, “we thought it would be a good idea to have an equivalent on the girls’ side,” Atwell said.

The girls’ award, also established in 2019, was named for Brittany Russell Spence (maiden name Brittany Russell), who graduated from LJHS in 2000 after playing in the school’s second season of girls water polo.

“She was at the very beginning of when girls started playing,” Atwell said. “She was a leader at the forefront of women’s water polo.”

Spence went on to play water polo for four years at UC Davis and played two seasons in Newcastle, Australia.

Hazuka said winning the Brittany Russell Spence award means a lot to her.

“Brittany Russell’s a huge role model to me,” Hazuka said. “I was honored to receive an award from her.

“I worked really hard this season and my team worked really hard, too, and it just feels really good to end it with an awesome award.”

Hazuka started playing water polo in seventh grade and said she looks forward to playing in college. “I fell in love with this sport and I’m super happy to keep playing.”

The Brittany Russell Spence financial award is funded by seed money set up by Sandy Coggan Erickson, who in 2002 also helped establish the Coggan Family Aquatic Complex, where LJHS swimmers and water polo players practice and compete.

Joyce Abrams stands with the La Jolla High School 2020-21 boys water polo team, which named her its honorary coach.
(Courtesy of Dave Abrams)

The Matthew Abrams award is the family’s way of “perpetuating his memory,” Dave Abrams said. “This seemed like the appropriate way to do it.”

Dave said he and Joyce have stayed involved in LJHS water polo year after year; the 2020-21 boys team named Joyce its honorary coach.

“That was kind of cool,” Dave said.

Spence, who knew Matthew Abrams, said “Matt was a really great guy, and his parents have done a really good job of carrying on his legacy.”

Spence now lives five minutes from the Coggan pool and takes her two young daughters there. She said having an award named after her is an honor, especially given her participation at the beginning of the sport.

“It was just so cool to see so many women really interested in it. … I commend the women before me that played with the guys and started [the girls’ team]. I reaped the benefits,” she said.

Spence said the phrase on her award — “Lead from the front” — originated with Atwell.

“He is the reason our program has thrived the way it has,” Spence said. “He’s really the one who’s led from the front. He’s in the water with the kids training.”

“A good coach isn’t someone who just teaches you the water polo skills,” she said, “but it’s more about the life lessons on how you can be a good person.” ◆