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Equal To The Task

Bell Gardens' Brenda Villa Is a Star on Boys' Water Polo Team

September 25, 1997|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brenda Villa still hears curious comments from spectators and opponents every time she walks onto the pool deck before Bell Gardens High boys water polo games.

And even though she is a two-time All-Southern Section player for the Lancers, she still occasionally absorbs taunts and threats in the water along with the requisite elbows and kicks.

"I hear comments like, 'Why are you playing a man's sport?' " Villa said. "But I don't get mad. Instead of getting into arguments or fights with boys, you score goals on them."

Villa has been a force in the pool ever since she began playing water polo as a 7-year-old at the Commerce Aquatic Center in the City of Commerce. Today, at 17, she is not only one of the best players in the boys' game, but the only high school player on the U.S. women's national team that will participate in the World Championships in January in Perth, Australia.

"Brenda is a special player because she has the experience of playing against men on a daily basis," said Vaune Kadlubek, coach of the national team. "She has great hands and an arsenal of shots. Plus, she's been playing so long, she has an instinct for the game that other women are still developing."

Girls' and women's water polo is enjoying a boom nationally at the high school and collegiate levels and is expected to grow even more as colleges and universities move toward gender equity mandated by Title IX. But Villa, 5-foot-5, is perfectly content to play on a boys team for now as women's water polo moves toward becoming an Olympic sport.

"The European women who play water polo are huge, so playing against boys is kind of like the same thing," said Villa, who played for the U.S. women's team in last summer's FINA World Cup at Nancy, France. "They're just as good or better than the boys I play against, so it benefits me in the long run."

Though she is a Southern Section qualifier in swimming, Villa is neither as strong nor as fast as most of the boys she tangles with. But the intelligence that has helped her become an honor student in the classroom is evident in the pool.

"She's always one play ahead of everyone else," said Bell Gardens Coach Bob Greenamyer, who annually has had several talented girls in his program during his 18 years with the Lancers. "She has the ability to anticipate what is going to happen before it occurs. And that drives some of the boys she plays against crazy."

So does Villa's penchant for creating scoring opportunities for teammates and herself. Though she is primarily a driver or perimeter player for the Lancers, she is also capable of setting and defending the physically taxing two-meter position.

"The big thing that separates her from other female high school players is that she is a legitimate scorer on the boys' level," Crescenta Valley Coach Pete Loporchio said. "Usually, the knock against girls is that they don't have the velocity on their shots to be effective. Brenda has taken it to a new level."

As a freshman, Villa scored 44 goals for a Lancer team that advanced to the second round of the playoffs before losing to Peninsula. In 1995, she scored 57 goals as Bell Gardens finished 28-3 and capped its season by defeating Whittier for the Division III title. Last year, Villa contributed 48 goals for a team that beat South Pasadena for the championship and finished 28-3.

At the World Cup last summer, Villa was the U.S. team's leading scorer in five matches.

"I think my size helps me because I'm able to sneak past a lot of people," she said. "You learn a lot when you play against good competition. And I've been doing that since I learned how to swim."

Indeed. The City of Commerce has sponsored age-group swimming and water polo teams almost from the day the Commerce Aquatic Center opened in 1960. Several teams have won national championships and many players have gone on to star for their high school and college teams.

Villa's older brother, Edgar, was the Division III player of the year in 1995 and plays for Citrus College.

"I always wanted to do what my brother was doing," Brenda said. "At 7, I was just trying to swim and get the ball. I wasn't really playing, but I wanted to copy my brother."

She learned quickly. Brenda was a member of Commerce's traveling team when she was 9 and played for the girls' junior national team by the time she reached high school.

At 15, she helped lead the United States to a third-place finish at the junior world championships in Quebec. Upon her return, she and former Bell Gardens teammate Liz Garcia received invitations to work out with the national team in San Diego.

For the last two years, Villa has shuttled between Bell Gardens and San Diego for once-a-month, three-day training camps, a commitment that will become greater as the World Championships approach.

For now, she is intent on finishing her high school career with a third consecutive title and earning a college scholarship.

"I never realized what I was getting into when I jumped into a pool for the first time," she said. "Water polo has really been great to me. I'm playing a game I love and getting to travel all over the world. What more can you ask for?"

*

Staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this story.

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