Something strange was in the air surrounding Ventura High. It wasn't the fresh marine breeze that is as common there as sun-bleached hair. It was a breath of optimism circulating around the pool as the Cougars' water polo team prepared for its annual meeting with cross-town rival Buena.
The rivalry, which lost some of its zeal in recent years because of Buena's dominance, has been refreshed by a talented Ventura team that has splashed water in Buena's face the past year. Ventura beat Buena twice in three meetings last year and defeated the Bulldogs all five times the teams met in summer play.
Ventura, which was a dismal 7-21 against Buena from 1973 to 1987, beat Buena, 12-4, last year to begin the Bulldogs' three-game tailspin that dropped them from first to third place in the Channel League. Ventura eventually tied for the league championship with Dos Pueblos, then lost in the quarterfinals of the Southern Section 2-A Division playoffs.
This year, Buena (14-4 overall, 3-0 in the league) is ranked third in the 2-A. Ventura (9-3, 2-1) is ranked seventh. But Ventura was third in the San Luis Obispo tournament last weekend, three spots ahead of Buena. The Cougars stayed with top-ranked South Pasadena before dropping a 10-6 decision.
So, at 3:15 today, fill the Ventura High pool and let the splashing begin.
Better break out the thermometer when you toss these teams in the pool. "It can be heated," Ventura Coach Dale Hahn said of the rivalry.
Like last year, both teams are Channel League contenders. It hasn't always been that way.
"Usually one team is good when the other isn't, and there still are some heated matches," Buena Coach Brook Sturtevant said. "Playing for a championship sure adds a dimension. Everything is that much more intense."
Players good-naturedly harass one another at restaurants and neighborhood video stores. Parents exchange words with opposing coaches during games. Elbows fly in the pool. The Cougars have painted last year's scores against Buena (11-8, 7-8, 12-4) in blue beside their pool.
"It's just the whole Buena-Ventura concept," Ventura center Jim Norton said.
Some of it, the players said, is just teen-age fun and games. But the joke is over when they share the same chlorinated water.
"You know you have to beat them, and you do whatever you can to win," said Ventura defensive specialist Jeff Valenzuela. "Just don't get caught."
Last year, with the league title on the line, players exchanged forearms and head butts. This year, with yet another league title up for grabs, the two regular-season games between the schools are again expected to generate some animosity.
"We think we're good. They think they're good," Hahn said. "It usually turns out to be a pretty emotional deal."
That's where Circus Fun, Ventura's adopted mascot, enters the picture. Ventura's players jokingly look to Circus Fun, a three-inch plastic toy figure of a devil's head, for guidance in pressure situations.
A player brought the head to practice one day. The team named it, buried it, and resurrected it. The players touch it for good luck during matches, sometimes floating it in the water "to energize it."
"Circus Fun guides us," said a grinning David Dustin Dean, the senior they call 3-D who sits pool side with his goggles strapped to his forehead and the straps dangling over his eyes. "It's just a joke, I guess, but it keeps morale up."
Now Circus is officially part of the fun involved with this rivalry.
"They're always looking for something funny like that," Hahn said. "In this type of situation, things can get pretty intense, and I think it helps keep them stay loose. It's like a good-luck charm for them. You know, just a bunch of kids."
It isn't the strangest thing Hahn, in his 17th season at Ventura High, has seen in this rivalry. Usually, oddities are of the chaotic nature.
"Three or four different times I've had Buena parents accuse us of paying off the officials. It's just amazing to me that they can get that involved," Hahn said.
That's just the parents. In the pool, players from both teams said there are always a few extra-curricular activities beneath the surface.
"All the pay-backs come in the pool," said Shawn Kinghorn, Buena's leading scorer.
A kick here. An elbow there. When that doesn't work, toss in a verbal assault or two.
"We've had some problems in the past, just a lot of things that were said, but hopefully they won't have anything to say after this next game," Kinghorn said.
"We fight each other tooth and nail when it comes to the games," Sturtevant said. "Expect a very, very physical game."
Most players consider the game second only to a playoff match.
"It's the one thing you look forward to each season," Dean said.