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VALLEY/VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Girls' Water Polo Making a Splash

January 16, 1998|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget that baloney about just having fun.

Nix the notion that it's just a game.

The balls and bathing caps aren't shiny and new any more, but the trophies and rings are--and that means girls' water polo teams in the region are playing for keeps this year.

Last year, the Southern Section sanctioned girls' water polo as an official sport. But a preseason poll indicated there would not be enough teams to implement a playoff system.

By the time the winter season began, there was more than the Southern Section's required 20% participation, but it was too late.

Leagues were formed, but not recognized. There was no divisional structure mapped out and no formal playoff system was introduced.

This year the sport is all that.

"It helps," said Thousand Oaks senior Anne-elise Rudrud, who has played four years of water polo. "Now we have something to go win games for. Last year we had to make up reasons before each individual game or tournament."

Those individual nonleague games and tournaments are taking a slight hit this year because of the implementation of three Southern Section divisions and 20 recognized leagues.

Rudrud and her Lancer team will host such a tournament starting today at Thousand Oaks High. Crescenta Valley, Newbury Park and Oxnard will join the Lancers in what last year was an eight-team tournament that, because of the lack of a playoff system, took on a playoff-like importance.

This year, the tournament has turned into just a midseason tuneup.

"Last year teams were anxious to get in a tournament like this because they were having problems getting games," said Jeff Warshaw, the Thousand Oaks coach. "Now with leagues, it's not really a problem."

Harvard-Westlake Coach Rich Corso has eliminated tournaments from his schedule because of the new stakes.

"All of our training and our schedule is based around winning a [Southern Section] championship," Corso said. "In tournaments you play four or five games in two days, but that's not good preparation for the playoffs. I want the girls to be used to getting ready for one game at a time like it will be when the playoffs start."

This new attitude in the sport has manifested in the quality of play. Passes are sharper, shots fly faster and swimming is more aggressive.

"There's definitely a bigger sense of pride in the sport," Warshaw said. "The players know that there's something at stake. Team leaders are constantly reminding the players during timeouts to remember that we're working toward a league championship and the playoffs."

Attitudes out of the pool have also undergone a major adjustment.

"Last year girls would show up on a cold or rainy day fully clothed and say, 'Are we really going to have practice today?' " Corso said. "This year the suits are on and they're in the water."

The first Southern Section rankings were released on Monday, with Harvard-Westlake ranked No. 2, Louisville No. 4, Ventura No. 9 and La Canada No. 10 in Division II, which includes all teams in the Valley-Ventura County region.

Thousand Oaks, which has gone unchallenged in the Marmonte League and is 6-0, should break into the rankings soon.

But not all teams in the region are entertaining thoughts of league titles and playoff runs. Some, such as Calabasas, are among the 25 Southern Section schools that added water polo this season.

The Coyotes are winless in six games and it is not uncommon for them to lose by 20 or more goals.

"The sport is definitely still taking shape," said Warshaw, whose Lancers beat Calabasas, 22-1, on Wednesday. "You're not ever going to eliminate games like that because somebody is always going to be better that someone else, but the sport still has a way to go as far as adding more teams to provide opportunities for better competition."

Rudrud, a catalyst in starting the girls' program at Thousand Oaks in the 1995-1996 season before it was a consideration for the Southern Section, advises teams such as Calabasas to hang in there.

"I have sympathy pains for them," she said. "I remember when I first played and I was scared to get the ball and when I got it I didn't know what to do with it. But slowly but surely it will start picking up."

With the advent of the playoff system and league title races, many believe it will start picking up across the board.

"This is the first sanctioned championship," Corso said. "It adds a lot of credibility. It's unbelievable the amount of girls coming out now. There's a real thirst out there. They want to be good players and they want to have a good team."

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