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Riverside Poly builds a water polo power

October 01, 2002|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Riverside Poly boys' water polo team would like to play in the Southern Section Division I playoffs, just to see.

They'd like to lock horns with Newport Harbor, Corona del Mar and Long Beach Wilson, even if just for one year. Something tells them that they could compete with the best if given the chance, but they can't seem to get anyone to take them seriously.

They are from Riverside, after all, and everybody knows that isn't a hotbed for water polo.

Right?

Not exactly. Riverside Poly has established a tradition in water polo, a sport most often associated with beach communities and Orange County. The Bears have won six Southern Section titles, including the last two in Division V, and are the top-ranked team in the division again this year.

But it is Division I or II titles, not Division V, that earn you entry into the fraternity of water polo elite. So despite its impressive resume, Poly continues to fight for respect.

"There is kind of an attitude that we don't know what we're doing out here and that kind of bothers us," Poly Coach Mark Colwell said. "But it's hard to compare if we don't play the top teams. How do I know if we're as good as them unless we play them?"

The Southern Section divisions are broken down geographically, meaning that Division V, contested primarily by schools in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, isn't necessarily inferior. But Division I and II are seen as the highest levels of competition because they are made up mostly of schools from Orange County and Long Beach.

But Poly made a respectable showing at the South Coast tournament in Orange County over the weekend. The prestigious tournament featured eight of the top 10 teams in Division I and six of the top 10 in Division II. Poly finished ninth for the third consecutive year.

The Bears defeated Laguna Beach and defending Division IV champion Santa Barbara and lost to La Jolla The Bishop's, a team that also defeated Newport Harbor and Corona del Mar.

"I think we've actually shown we can play with these teams," said Mike Looy, a senior two-meter man for Poly. "If we play four quarters of our best polo, we'd be right with them."

The water polo tradition at Poly started with Al Jennings when the school opened in 1965, but it took off when Dave Almquist took over as coach in 1977.

Almquist, now the coach at Riverside College, fought hard to get respect for Poly water polo. He drove to Orange County and met with coaches from established programs. He lobbied to schedule games and gain entry into tournaments against top teams. Finally, he persuaded Bill Barnett of Newport Harbor to give him a chance.

Almquist won four Southern Section titles in his 20 years. His success earned him a spot as one of Barnett's assistant coaches on the U.S. men's national team from 1984-88, including the silver medal-winning Olympic team in 1988.

"You have to play in Orange County," Almquist said. "That's where you find the best competition and we wanted to compete at that level. I think Riverside polo gets some respect now. There are still some people in certain areas with the attitude that we can't play, but it's going away."

One disadvantage Poly continues to face is the lack of a regulation-sized pool on campus. Most elite teams have them. Another problem has been the absence of an age-group program to develop young players.

Growing up in Riverside, kids don't exactly dream of becoming water polo stars. Cody Bartley, the team's leading scorer this year, didn't consider the sport until a friend mentioned it to him in junior high.

"I didn't even know there was such a thing as water polo," Bartley said. "And when I tried it, I hated it."

The age-group dilemma has changed. About four years ago, Riverside Aquatics, a swim club, began a water polo program. Last summer, that team took third in a national club tournament. Several of those players are in the freshman class at Poly this year.

"The advantage Orange County schools have always had is that they get kids who have played all their lives," Colwell said. "We're just now starting to see the benefits of an established age-group program."

There is no official movement to get Poly into Division I or II. To do so would require navigating red tape and convincing other Sierra League members to join the movement.

So for now, Poly will have to remain content occasionally rubbing elbows with the elite in tournaments and using those experiences in pursuit of another Division V title.

"I always thought it would be fun to play in Division I or II," Colwell said. "But we take a lot of pride in Division V."

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