Elise Stein’s destiny to play water polo was all but etched in stone just after she was born.
Her parents, Ken and Margo, moved to the Coachella Valley 32 years ago into a home that just happened to house a pool in the backyard. With five kids, spending afternoons splashing around in the pool with each other was about all the Stein’s could afford to do.
That love for all things aquatic evolved into a familial attachment to water polo when Elise’s oldest sister Kelly was headed into high school and gave the sport a try at the advice of a fellow volunteer lifeguard.
The eldest Stein took her once-raw skills all the way to the college level at the University of Redlands.
While Elise watched on the pool decks at Palm Desert High School, Redlands and USC, barely old enough to navigate floaties and the basics of the freestyle stroke, her elder siblings dove into the sport at younger and younger ages, building on the careers of those before her.
Michelle took the USC program by storm, leading them to three NCAA Division I championship appearances and was a first-team All-American as a senior while also making waves on the USA Junior National Women’s Water Polo team. Jill made her way into the Redlands record books in multiple ways, garnering second-team All American honors as a senior.
Grant finally brought home the family’s first CIF title at Palm Desert as a senior and was named an honorable mention to the All American list as a sophomore at USC.
But in such a decorated family where the competition to be the best is nearly as fierce as the water polo battles in the family pool, Elise has plans and has already set the stage to top them all.
Yes, the youngest Stein is The Desert Sun’s female athlete of the year, but perhaps an even tougher feat would be to become the best athlete in her family.
According to sister Michelle, who was her coach at Palm Desert, she’s well on her way.
“She’s like an adult compared to me if I was a child going into USC,” Michelle (Stein) Valovic said. “My coaches would say ‘Go to Position 1’ and I was like ‘Numbers? What?’ I was completely lost.
“I don’t think anyone is as self-motivated or self-driven in our family as she is. The amount of effort she’s putting into what she’s doing, preparing to go to USC while she’s not in season … It’s her summer break, and she’s lifting and swimming. She doesn’t need to be told to. She wants to.”
That “want-to” attitude dates back 10 years to when Elise first watched Michelle in the pool during her opening days as a Trojan. She already had the swimming bug in her blood at 8 years old, but mirroring Michelle’s illustrious career was what sprung her into action.
“Ever since Michelle went to USC, it’s been my goal to get to where she was,” Elise said. “I wanted that so badly. Growing up, I wanted to go to USC, to be a part of that team, and I didn’t want to stop until I got there.”
Stein began playing competitive water polo for the club team Desert Aquatics in sixth grade before jumping up to join CHAWP, a nationally-competitive program in Chino Hills, during her freshman year of high school.
At Palm Desert as a freshman, Elise quickly adjusted to the high school game, competing against girls three years older than her, but Michelle, her coach, said she lacked an air of confidence.
“It felt like she was shooting because no one else would, or the time was about to run out and everyone was yelling for her to shoot,” Michelle said.
Elise’s sophomore year brought the program’s first-ever CIF title, just months after brother Grant led the boys to their own, but still, Stein could rely on a solid slate of seniors to help carry the squad.
As a junior, Elise was more-so on her own, and though she netted a school-record 152 goals, her Aztecs fell victim to a thundering comeback by Los Altos in the Division 5 title game after leading 4-1 at halftime.
To a player and a member of an entire family that doesn’t like to lose and rarely does, the loss stung, but more than that, it pushed her into another gear.
“I feel like right at the beginning of this season, I was telling my family that I saw such a difference in the way Elise played,” Michelle said. “I knew there would be no losing for her this year. She decided she’ll do anything to win.”
Facing a rare moment of adversity in the semifinals against La Canada in February, Stein’s resilience shined bright. With the Aztecs down 6-3 with just over a period to play, Stein helped initiate the same kind of run that ended Palm Desert’s season a year earlier, ending in a 9-6 win.
In the finals against Temple City, it was time for Stein to show what all the hours in the pool and in the gym lifting weights with brother-in-law Pavol Valovic, a former Trojan water polo star, was for.
Elise tallied six goals in the 13-4 rout to finish her senior season with 127 goals, 130 steals and 65 assists, capping her high school career as the most decorated Stein at Palm Desert, bringing home two CIF titles, three Desert Valley League MVP awards and an All-CIF First Team distinction as a senior.
This offseason, though, Michelle can clearly tell her younger sister, in many ways a younger version of herself, is nowhere near done.
“At practice the other day, she was scrimmaging … and at the end, her team lost,” Michelle said. “She looked at me, like ‘I want to scream’ and I knew that that was my look right there. She doesn’t want to lose. That makes her very angry, no matter what it is, and I identify with that.”
As decorated as her career was at USC, Michelle was dealt some tough blows when it mattered most. Her Trojan squad made the NCAA Division I finals three of her four years, bowing out in the semifinals the other season. The results?
Four season-ending losses to UCLA, the champion each of those years, by a total of six goals. For someone who wants nothing more than to be her sister, it’s no wonder Elise, who was being recruited by the Bruins, verbally committed to Trojan coach Jovan Vavic over the phone last August immediately after he offered the youngest Stein a scholarship.
Her mother Margo said the USC coach has voiced several times the high expectations he holds for Elise coming in just as a freshman, but Michelle said her younger sister has always had the advanced mindset able to compete with girls several years older.
“Even if she wasn’t the oldest person in the pool, she had the oldest water polo brain,” Michelle said. “If you can have someone in the pool who knows water polo in their head, they can be talking at the other end of the pool, and you may not be able to hear the coach, but it’s like you have a coach right there. That makes a huge difference.”
Now, after four years of Michelle’s system that mimics much of Vavic’s tendencies, Stein heads off to USC, the defending NCAA Division I champs, in a couple months more prepared and with more experience than any of her elder siblings, looking to bring home an NCAA title that has eluded the Steins for years.
“Walking on the championship team this season will be exciting, and I’d love to win a championship with them,” she said. “My next step is another championship.”
Elise Stein facts
College-bound: Headed to USC on scholarship to play water polo.
Going out on top: The Aztecs, led by Stein, won the team’s second CIF title in three years 13-4 over Temple City. Stein scored six goals.
Stellar senior season: Stein scored 127 goals, dished out 65 assists and snatched 130 steals as a senior.
MVP performance: The senior was named CIF Southern Section Division 5 MVP while picking up her fourth consecutive Desert Valley League MVP.