Benefield: For Empire water polo teams, staying afloat is the big goal

Ukiah's McKenzie Schutz passes as Marin Catholic's Emily Luster defends during the game held at Talmapais High School, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Ukiah’s McKenzie Schutz passes as Marin Catholic’s Emily Luster defends during the game held at Talmapais High School, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

By Kerry Benefield
The Press Democrat

The hardest thing about local water polo is not mastering the egg beater or doing a 50-yard sprint to get back on defense. It’s not swimming for your life for four quarters while your opponent kicks you underwater and pulls on your suit. In local high school water polo, the toughest part is just getting a competitive game and a consistent schedule.

Talk to coaches and officials from the three area high schools that field water polo teams and you hear tales of the rising popularity of the sport among its devoted athletes. But you also hear the complicated machinations needed just to get competitive games, regular league play and schedules that don’t involve traveling to Turlock and Modesto on a regular basis.

It’s been a long and winding road for area programs with no assurance that the relatively smooth waters this season will remain so going forward. After one year in the current league configuration, there are whispers that changes could be afoot once again.

(See photos of Ukiah in action against Marin Catholic here )

But before we look forward, let’s take a look back.

High school water polo has been offered by a handful of area schools for about two decades. Cardinal Newman formed a team in the late ’90s and the Cardinals traveled hither and yon to get games, mostly in tournaments, according to Principal Graham Rutherford. Then Ukiah and Sonoma Valley wanted in, so, along with Marin Academy in San Rafael, North Coast Section officials created for those four high schools a “supplementary league” in which the four teams played each other, crowned a league champ and had a berth in the NCS tournament.

This arrangement had its advantages. It provided regular league games rather than jam-packed tournament schedules that cost schools big bucks and didn’t allow players to actually improve between weekly matches. It also freed teams from spending so much time in places like Modesto.

The smaller league also guaranteed that at least one member of the Redwood Empire Water Polo League would make the NCS playoffs each year. Bright lights, big crowds — a great experience for athletes even if the games rarely ever resulted in a W.

But area officials say Marin Academy was never happy having to regularly travel so far up north. Their administrators wanted to be with their neighbors in the bigger, far more competitive Marin County Athletic League. So two years ago, they bolted.

“They basically said, ‘We are sorry for you guys but it’s not working for us,’ ” Rutherford remembered. “So we got stuck. We were left holding the bag.”

“It felt like we had been completely marginalized,” he said.

My dictionary describes marginalize thusly: “to exclude or ignore, esp. by relegating to the outer edge of a group … ”

Yup.

So for two seasons, Newman, Ukiah and Sonoma Valley were cast adrift. They played against each other, they played tournaments. But a league of three? And even then, it sometimes fell to a league of two when one school couldn’t field a girls team and had to offer its junior varsity boys team up for “scrimmages.”

“Last year, we had four league games. We played Sonoma twice and we played Cardinal Newman twice. That’s it,” said Rick Cleland, who for a decade has led the Ukiah High boys and girls water polo program. “They let us struggle with three teams for two seasons.”

A tiny league makes for super playoff-making odds but does not do much to promote all of those things we hope for kids in sports — dynamic competition, experiencing other schools, testing oneself against a variety of trials.

So the local teams went back to NCS officials and lobbied to have the “supplemental” Redwood Empire league (I’m using that term loosely) absorbed into the bigger, mightier Marin County Athletic League.

Yes, our teams are prone to taking a pounding from a team or two from the south, but it also exposes athletes to a higher level of play.

“We are playing with the best,” Cardinal Newman boys coach Chris Humphreys said. “It’s nice to be able to play them and show the guys real water polo.”

“We don’t win many games,” Cardinal Newman girls coach Christina Messer said. “The girls are just happy to be out there. They are excited to play. Even if they are getting killed, they are having so much fun.”

And water polo continues to grow in the schools where its offered.

When Messer took on the girls team three years ago, four girls showed up. She recruited in the hallways and got it up to 11. This year, there are 32 girls on the roster — enough for both varsity and junior varsity squads.

Cleland, who has run a strong program up north for years, has called the varying league setups a “mixed bag.”

His kids have shone in the smaller league, winning trips to the NCS tournament, which is a special arena for most of his athletes to compete in.

But on the other hand, playing the same teams over and over in league and cramming in a few tournaments is not an ideal arrangement, either.

So fast forward to now and life in the MCAL.

The North Bay teams have held their own this year. The Ukiah girls team is the best from up north, sitting in fifth place in the MCAL, while the boys squad is in sixth. The Cardinal Newman boys are in seventh place and the girls team is in 11th.

Sonoma Valley is struggling some, with the boys team in 11th place and the girls in 13th.

Still, there is expected to be another push to excise Cardinal Newman, Ukiah and Sonoma Valley from the MCAL at the annual NCS alignment meeting in January. The MCAL is currently 13 teams strong and travel expenses are made significantly steeper with the inclusion of the three North Bay campuses.

“In January, there will probably be a push to say ‘Hey, we don’t want these schools,’ ” said Gil Lemmon, North Coast Section athletics commissioner. “But there (are) just not enough schools to make it a go in the Redwood Empire.”

The easiest thing would be if water polo caught on like lacrosse where enough area schools have picked up the sport that a league is viable. But for the schools that offer water polo — the sport is here to stay.

“It’s different from any sport that they have played,” Cleland said. “They absolutely love it.”

Cleland is hesitant to make a judgment about league makeup based solely on winning percentages or travel times or the backstage workings of athletic officials. He’s more keen to look at the kids and to consider how student athletes feel about their team and their prep experience.

“If the only reason we play is to win and the only enjoyment kids have is to win, then it would be hard to get kids out for almost any sport,” he said. “I think they need to have success along the way, enjoy the season, enjoy the improvements — to become better athletes, better people, better water polo players.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield