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Making a Splash

Girls' Water Polo Starts Its First Season as a Southern Section-Sanctioned Sport

January 29, 1998|PETER YOON and GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Forget all that talk 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 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. There are 128 teams competing for three division titles. The section championship matches will be played in March at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach.

"Last year, there was a tournament at the end of the season in Irvine and we kind of looked at it like it was for CIF, but it really wasn't," said Brianne Barth, a senior at Long Beach Wilson, which is 16-0 and ranked No. 1 in Division I. "This year, we have a real championship to play for."

Girls' and women's water polo is regarded as the fastest-growing sport at the high school and college levels, mirroring the explosion that soccer has enjoyed. Many Southland high school programs have drawn overwhelming interest from girls ready to take the plunge.

"We had 50 girls come out this year," said Riverside Arlington Coach Bill Grisham, who developed the school's boys' team into a sectional power during his 11 years as coach and has the girls' team ranked third in Division III. "Unfortunately, we don't yet have the coaching staff to handle 50 players. It was the first time I had to make cuts in 25 years of coaching swimming and water polo."

Last season, most schools placed their emphasis on teaching fundamentals and participating in nonleague games and tournaments. Those individual nonleague games and tournaments are taking a slight hit this year because of the implementation of 20 recognized leagues.

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 shows in the quality of play. Passes are sharper, shots fly faster and swimming is more aggressive.

"There's a huge difference between this year and last year,' said Wilson Coach Rick Azevedo, who also guided the Bruin boys' team to consecutive Division I championships. "Last year, I think the mentality was, 'Let's go out there and do the best we can.' The girls played every game hard, but I'm not sure the dedication was what it is this year. I see a whole different approach. I see a lot more committed mentality on the part of just about all the girls."

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 girls' Southern Section rankings this week look much like the boys' rankings did during the fall. With the exception of Long Beach Wilson, Orange County schools dominate Division I. Santa Barbara sits atop Division II. Rosary, an all-girls' school in Fullerton, is the top-ranked team in Division III.

Bell Gardens, the school with perhaps the greatest number of talented players, is not fielding a girls' team this year. Brenda Villa of Bell Gardens was the only high school player on the U.S. women's team that competed in the world championships earlier this month in Australia. But because Villa and a few other girls played for the Lancers' powerful boys' team this past season, the school, under Southern Section rules, cannot field a girls' team.

Nestor Dordoni, who coaches the boys' and girls' teams at Culver City High, said that although the game is the same, there are differences in the way boys and girls play it.

"The boys rely on power and muscle, the girls think about things more," Dordoni said. "They set plays and pay more attention to what's happening. The game is a little slower, but they are into it."

Several schools, such as Wilson and Los Alamitos, have benefited from community club and junior programs that supplied seasoned players from the outset. Barth, for example, has been playing water polo since she was 6. Her sister, Kristen, plays for UCLA. Cat Bell, another Wilson senior, has been playing since she was 11 and has a sister who plays at Stanford.

But most schools are still in the developing phase. Twenty-five, in fact, are first-year programs. It is not uncommon for them to lose matches to more experienced teams by large margins.

"You see the difference in the brand-new teams, they are trying to catch up," said Dordoni, who fielded a girls' team at Culver City last season. "But I guarantee you: In two years it's going to be really even. Those programs are improving quickly."

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