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Bell Gardens' Domination Appears to Be at an End

Girls' water polo: Foothill and Santa Margarita are among the challengers.

November 22, 2001|DAN ARRITT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nothing lasts forever. Not even for the Bell Gardens High girls' water polo team.

The Lancers discovered that in February, when their 85-game winning streak was ended by Santa Ana Foothill in the championship game of the Irvine tournament.

Now, it's their reputation as the Southland's premier team that's being challenged, not only by Foothill's strong returning squad, but also by Santa Margarita, which has stepped up with some key off-season transfers.

And, for the first time, Bell Gardens will even feel some heat within the Almont League.

The movement toward parity can be attributed to the development of other programs, as well as a leveling off at Bell Gardens.

The Lancers had an early advantage when the Southern Section sanctioned the sport before the 1998-99 season. They already had a team full of experienced age-group players, most of whom spent their early high school years playing on the boys' team.

Bell Gardens was considered so dominant during that first season, it wasn't even invited to the prestigious Irvine tournament.

"They were already going full speed ahead when everyone else was just learning how to play the game," said Whittier Coach Chris Schneider.

Those early players and several on the current team developed their skills under Coach Gabriel Martinez at the Commerce Aquatic Center, where age-group swimming and water polo teams were sponsored almost from the day it opened in 1960.

One of those pioneers was Brenda Villa, who was a standout for the Bell Gardens boys' team from 1994-97 and was the youngest member of the 2000 Olympic team.

Villa currently plays for Stanford and is one of several former Lancers playing for Division I programs.

But the future has become a little less certain for Bell Gardens as Commerce Aquatic members are starting to consider other area high schools. One of these is Montebello, a fellow Almont League member whose team is led by first-year Coach Sergio Macias, who also coaches for Commerce.

Bell Gardens Coach Robert Greenamyer is aware of the impending shift in power and the challenge he faces.

Currently among the seniors on his roster are U.S. junior national team members Patty Cardenas and goalie Alex Lopez, but the pipeline is beginning to run dry.

"You can only replace so many all-Americans," said Greenamyer, adding that for now, he will stay focused on the upcoming season. The Lancers return four starters. In addition to Cardenas and Lopez, who were Division III co-most valuable players last season, also returning are Viviana Morales and Jenny Rueda, both all-Southern Section selections.

"The four [returning starters] that I've got are solid," Greenamyer said, "but I really get little after that."

Cardenas and Lopez said they are ready for the challenge and accept that they may not win every game. But they also realize the chances of any team winning 85 consecutive games is becoming more remote each year.

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