When one thinks of sports most likely to be played in Texas, water polo doesn’t necessarily come to mind. But Fresno State freshman water polo standout Callie Woodruff might just be ready to change all of that.
Woodruff grew up in Baytown, Texas, a town of about 75,000 people, before moving to Clovis midway through her junior year. She graduated high school in 2017.
She started playing water polo at the age of 6, and if she had stuck with her initial impression of the sport, she likely wouldn’t be at Fresno State leading the team in goals and points.
“When I tried it the very first time, I completely hated it, and I did not want to play it,” Woodruff said. “I tried it just a few months later, and I just absolutely loved it because I was little and was pretty good at it, and I was like ‘OK, this is cool,’ and I just stuck with it, and I have loved it since.”
In addition to playing the sport for Clovis High School, Woodruff pieced together quite the resume during her prep career.
Among her many achievements, she was a member of the Olympic Development Program’s national team for the 16-and-under class in 2015 and a Cadet National Team member in 2014.
It was while playing there that she met Natalie Benson, her head coach then, and now the head coach of Fresno State’s water polo team.
“I had kept in contact with her throughout the years. It was cool knowing her already when I came into this,” Woodruff said.
Still, it wasn’t until Woodruff played club water polo in Southern California that she heard that her former coach was interested in recruiting her to be a part of Fresno State’s inaugural women’s water polo season.
“I played with Rose Bowl Water Polo Club down in L.A. and she has really good connections with the coaches there. I would hear about it from my coaches,” Woodruff said.
She added: “At first I wasn’t big on the idea, but I started coming into contact with Natalie. Last year was my third summer there, and so sophomore year I would fly out and play with them here for tournaments and then move out here for the whole summer to compete in Junior Olympics with them.”
Benson said she knew that once she took the job to coach at Fresno State, Woodruff would be one of her highest recruiting priorities.
“She is a hard worker, and then when I got this job, I knew that Callie had moved from Texas to Clovis, and I figured why not have her one of the first kids here, and we went after her pretty hard,” Benson said.
It was not just Woodruff’s natural talent or the fact that she lives in the Central Valley that drew Benson to want to recruit her. It was her toughness.
“She is Texan and the Central Valley ideals as well of toughness and perseverance and grit [are similar]. I have seen her play with a broken hand, pulling her stitches out when she was playing 18-and-under,” Benson said.
“Seeing her so upset on not being able to play and coming back in, she’s a tough kid. She has been hurt and continues to get back in and mixes it up. I appreciate her toughness and her grit and determination.”
Woodruff said that she is still adjusting to the sizable gap in competitiveness between high school and college-level water polo, explaining that the training in college-level water polo is more intense.
But that intensity in training hasn’t slowed her down.
Through 18 games, Woodruff has scored 29 goals and amassed 36 points. That is eight more goals and 10 more points than the next closest player on the team.
Benson isn’t surprised by Woodruff’s statistics. Benson said she knew that her star freshman was offensively inclined. What Benson is impressed with is how Woodruff has improved on the opposite side of the ball, on defense.
“Defensively has been her biggest area of improvement. Her learning curve has gone through the roof. Her attention to detail in practice has gotten a lot better because she is a gamer. She loves playing games, and she can lose a little bit of focus in practice,” Benson said.
Benson said she and the other Bulldogs also admire Woodruff’s personality.
Benson described Woodruff as one who keeps things light but not too light; a person who knows when to be serious and when to joke around.
“The girls love her,” Benson said.
“She will throw in a joke. She will even joke with the coaching staff about things. She did an impression of me in one of our close-out meetings. She looked at me kind of funny, and I said ‘Nope, keep going. I want to see what I sound like to you.’”
Although Woodruff is just beginning her time at Fresno State, she has her sights firmly set on two goals. Winning conference which would get her and the team to the NCAA championships.
And, Woodruff said, “I want to get better. Everyone wants to get better.”