Rich Corso swings open the bottom drawer of his desk and tosses the live phone receiver in among notebooks and old newspaper clippings. With the back of his hand, he slams the drawer closed, violently pinching the cord.
Surrounded by framed magazine covers that glamorize his sport, Corso swivels forward in his office chair and glares across his word processor. All calls are on hold--Corso is ready to talk water polo.
He's outspoken, blunt and has the attitude of a guy you'd want on your side in a bar fight.
His resonant voice, filled with East Coast inflection, carries well beyond his slight build. His boisterous manner is not what you'd expect of a water polo coach at a private school of 500 boys in the hills of suburban Los Angeles.
Corso has brought a bit of East Hartford swagger to Harvard water polo. At 33, he already has been an assistant at Stanford, the head coach at Yale, and, most recently, an assistant at UCLA for 10 years. He was an assistant on the U. S Olympic team in 1984 and currently coaches the junior national water polo team, a U. S. squad composed of the best 20-and-under players in the nation. Typically, none of the players on the junior national team is from the Valley.
"If a guy from Connecticut, from New Haven, who swam in East Hartford, can learn the game, then the guys who are native Californians, who are exposed to it from when they are 10 years old, should be doing pretty good," Corso said.
This is not just the bluster of an ex-club player from Southern Connecticut State College. If there is anyone who can resuscitate water polo in the San Fernando Valley, Corso's peers believe he is the man for the job.
The area has been a virtual death valley for the sport since Crespi won the Southern Section 2-A Division championship in 1981.
This season, Corso's second at Harvard, the Saracens are the only Valley team ranked in the Southern Section on any level. Harvard, ranked No. 6 in the 2-A Division, is 22-5, including an 8-0 sweep through the Frontier League. And the Saracens, who defeated Lompoc, 8-5, Wednesday, have a chance to make a postseason impact.
Royal won its seventh consecutive Marmonte League championship this season, but the Highlanders have never advanced past the second round of the 3-A playoffs. Royal (15-9, 8-0) will try to equal its best finish with a first-round victory today over visiting Buena. Crespi, the Valley's solitary link to past water polo glory, stumbled to a 7-12 record and barely made the playoffs. The Celts play at Gahr.
The relative anonymity of the sport is also evident at a broader level.
Every Olympian since 1960 has been a Californian, according to Monte Nitzkowski, the U. S. Olympic water polo coach in 1972 and 1984 as well as the boycotted 1980 Games. Yet, Nitzkowski doesn't remember one of those players calling the Valley home.
Nitzkowski, 58, is in his 34th season as coach at Long Beach City College. The eight-time U. S. National team coach is puzzled by the lack of water polo talent in the Valley.
"Something got lost in the shuffle out there in the Valley," Nitzkowski said. "You would have expected that to be an aquatics hotbed. They've always had the potential, but it fell out of focus somewhere along the line."
So why doesn't Valley water polo match up to programs in Orange County and South Bay? Every year the rankings are filled with the names of powers such as Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor, Miraleste and Mission Viejo.
Mission Viejo Coach Ron Osumi dismissed the notion that Orange County players all but live at the beach and, therefore, have a natural bent toward aquatic sports. Instead, he said, competitiveness and a strong tradition provide the edge.
"There's this image that all these kids do is surf and play water polo," said Osumi, whose team is ranked sixth in the 3-A Division. "But they have other interests.
"I think it's because when you play the best, you end up being like that."
Bill Barnett, whose teams have won 10 CIF-Southern Section titles in his 21 years as coach at Newport Harbor, traditionally has one of the finest high school water polo programs in Southern California. The Sailors are 23-4 this season, and ranked No. 2 in the 4-A.
In Barnett's view, the players can't help but have some of the area's resources rub off on them.
"I think at the beach schools the kids are generally more interested in water," he said. "And then it helps create an environment where the kids become more skilled because they want to swim or surf or become lifeguards."
Although the Valley is landlocked and nearly an hour's drive from the Pacific Ocean, many area experts said financial constraints, extinction of youth programs and poor planning of facilities are at the root of the problem.
"It just didn't seem like they ever came up with the high school athletic facilities or the consistent feeder programs," Nitzkowski said. "It could have been one of the most productive areas."
Instead, Valley water polo has drowned in varying levels of apathy and budget cuts.