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Pool Sharks : Bueno, Garcia and Villa Chew Up Their Opponents in Water Polo, a Sport Traditionally Dominated by Males

October 16, 1994|SEAN WATERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When three girls jumped into the pool for a water polo match against California High, opposing male players began to circle, sensing easy prey.

"Girls playing water polo!" said one boy with a smirk. "I'm sure they can swim and maybe pass a little, but how can they beat us?"

These girls can. Nadia Bueno, Liz Garcia and Brenda Villa are the pool sharks of Bell Gardens High. And for them, shallow-minded opponents are, in a word, bait.

In a sport dominated by males, it's unusual to find even one girl playing for a boys' water polo team, let alone three.

Bueno, Garcia and Villa began competing when they were 6- and 7-year olds for City of Commerce Aquatics. Through hard work and dedication, they are among the top female water polo players in the country for their age group.

Garcia, a 17-year-old senior, was selected one of the top 13 water polo players in the country for girls 19 and under. She is a member of the U.S. Junior National women's team, which competed this summer in Havana, Cuba.

Bueno, 17, a senior, and Villa, 14, a freshman, compete for U.S. National Youth age-group teams.

"Guys think we can't play," Garcia said. "They think that all they have to do is beat us up."

While the three have drawn attention within water polo circles, they must still constantly prove themselves.

In the match against California High--won by Bell Gardens, 20-11--Garcia broke free with only the goalie standing in her way. He wandered from the goal, almost daring her to score. Garcia nonchalantly lobbed the ball into the right corner of the net for an easy point.

"You should have seen the look on the goalie's face," Villa said. "It was like 'uh-oh.' "

Bell Gardens has seen plenty of puzzled looks while improving its record to 18-2 overall, beating El Rancho, 37-12 on Tuesday.

Villa, Bueno and Garcia are the third-, fourth- and fifth-leading scorers on the team, which is ranked third in Southern Section Division III. La Serna and South Pasadena are the top two teams.

Out of 187 Southern Section schools, Bell Gardens is among a handful of teams--Cerritos, Anaheim Magnolia, Placentia El Dorado and Montebello are some of the others--to have at least one female water polo player. Two former Lancers, Margo Miranda and Jennifer Bontrager, earned All-American honors in high school before going on to compete at UC Santa Barbara.

*

Bueno, Garcia and Villa "are good swimmers and they really know the game of water polo," said Hank Vellekamp, Long Beach City College water polo coach and head coach for the men's and women's swimming teams. "They're tremendously intelligent and no matter what team they play for--Commerce, Bell Gardens or a national team--they are team players."

"Those (Bell Gardens) girls play really good defense and cause a lot of turnovers," El Rancho Coach Tom Mikalson said. "They know how to make the right passes.

"If we saw three girls starting and weren't familiar with their system, we would be surprised to get waxed like that."

"They're not regular girls," Bell Gardens Coach Robert Greenamyer said, trying not to sound chauvinistic. "They are outstanding athletes who play better than boys. They're just not as strong."

But what they lack in physical toughness, they compensate with experience and swimming skills. Although they can't defend themselves as well as their male teammates, their speed and swimming ability give them an advantage in many situations.

At one point in the match against California, with her back turned against her opponent, Villa lifted the ball with her right hand and used her left hand as leverage. She spun quickly around her opponent until he was turned facing his own net.

The defender was so frustrated, he jumped on Villa's back and was ejected from the match.

*

"It's one thing to get scored on," Greenamyer said. "It's another to be turned by a girl. That's embarrassing."

Greenamyer said he often hears opposing fans complain that the girls receive special treatment.

"I hear comments from the stands," he said. "Of course, if a girl makes a skip shot. . . . What can they say? The goalie blinked?

"Good is good," he added. "It doesn't matter if the athlete is a boy or girl."

Vellekamp, who assigns water polo officials for the Southern Section, conceded that the girls might get a "tiny bit" of special treatment.

"A good-sized guy may not be able to foul as hard against a girl," said Vellekamp. "Or a girl may be allowed to foul a little harder. But it's not noticeable to anybody but the two officials."

The girls, on the other hand, complain that the boys take out their frustrations on them.

"They're out to hurt us," Villa said.

But they get their revenge on the scoreboard.

And another guy walks home with a shark bite.

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