CCS Task Force

CCS Looks into allegations of excessive violence in water
Gilroy – If high school water polo can’t clean up its act, it’s in danger of not having a future as a high school sport in the Central Coast Section.

Reports of violent incidents taking place at water polo matches has prompted the CCS to form a task force of administrators, coaches and officials to look into cleaning up the sport.

“If I let it go another year, I can almost guarantee it’s gone (as a CCS sanctioned sport),” said CCS commissioner Nancy Lazenby Blaser. “There’s a lot of hitting, punching, biting and grabbing of genitals. We’re having a meeting to discuss it and to decide how to make it safer.”

The concern is warranted. According to recent reports submitted to the CCS, one player had three front teeth knocked out. Another had his scrotum grabbed, twisted and pulled by an opposing player and ended up in the hospital with severe bruising. Yet another was head butted into unconsciousness.

Though heavier on the boys’ side, dangerous play on the girls’ side is also very much alive, Lazenby Blaser said. And with the acts in the pool amongst both sexes becoming more and more disturbing over the past two to three years, the commissioner felt the problem had to be addressed now.

Lazenby Blaser has taken some criticism from coaches and parents in the section who believe water polo violence is a non-issue. The local opinion, however, has been in support of the task force initiation. Though it varied in regards to how serious the problems are.

Live Oak boys water polo head coach Mack Haines is a part of the CCS task force. He agreed that there are problems within the sport, but doesn’t see them as devastating.

“Do I think that there’s some issues? Absolutely. Do I think it’s been kind of overblown? Absolutely, a little bit,” said Haines, a 28-year coaching veteran who led the Acorns to the CCS finals last week. “We do have a problem and we do need to fix it. (Water polo) is a great sport with lots of opportunities and it can be fixed.”

However, Gilroy girls water polo coach Andy Been and Gilroy boys coach Tom Clark felt more strongly about the seriousness of the issue. Both believed excessively aggressive play occurs mostly because there’s a shortage of officials, specifically those with experience.

“Things that are not being called and should be called are leading to other things,” said Clark, who played water polo collegiately.

That type of domino effect hurt the Mustangs in a match this season. One of the incidents reported to the CCS occurred during a Gilroy/Carmel match up in the TCAL Tournament. A Carmel player was hospitalized after he was head butted by a Gilroy player. Clark didn’t condone his player’s actions, but said it wasn’t just his player or team involved in ugly play.

This season alone, some of Been’s players had their suits pulled by opponents so that their breasts would be exposed if they rolled over out of the water. Players on defense used this tactic to keep opponents submerged. It prompted Been to decide to have next year’s team invest in special rubber swimsuits made specifically for water polo that can’t be grabbed or pulled.

“It turns into a wrestling match when certain teams are allowed to hold and wrestle. Then it turns into a grabbing and hitting match. That’s not how the sport is supposed to be played,” said Been, who played water polo at Hayward State. “It’s a sport of swimming and not of grabbing and hitting. That’s what it becomes at certain levels.”

Many TCAL games this season had just one official, which Been felt wasn’t sufficient because one official couldn’t follow what was happening away from the ball. And no matter how many officials are patrolling a pool, illegal underwater activity is always difficult to detect.

Lazenby Blaser called coaches blaming officials “a cop out,” laying most of the responsibility for unsportsmanlike play on the coaches who often accept the violence as part of the sport.

“The things that we’re seeing are not inadvertent. Many of them are deliberate,” Lazenby Blaser said. “It ought not to be part of the sport.”

Haines said that there’s not only a shortage of officials, but of coaches as well.

“We’ve (the sport of water polo) expanded so fast in such a short time that the number of quality coaches and officials has suffered in the last five years because you’ve more than doubled the sport in a sport that wasn’t really popular except for in the Bay Area, Southern California and Hawaii.”

Haines cited Sobrato’s difficulty in finding a coach for its boys team, despite having new state-of-the-art pool, as an example of the lack of coaches.

Boys water polo has been a CCS sport for years. Girls water polo was added 10 years ago. But in that 10 years, the number of girls participating has skyrocketed to the point where they now outnumber the boys.

Of course, there are some proposed solutions to help improve the sport. Proposals on the table include having coaches from the nationally renowned Stanford, Cal and Cal State-Monterey Bay college programs put on clinics for coaches and officials, moving girls water polo to winter to compensate for the shortage of coaches and officials and having tougher punishment for players that engage in dirty play.

Better educating coaches and officials would give players a better understanding of the game and how not to get themselves in dangerous situations.

“The kids need to be coached on how to avoid getting hurt,” Haines said. “If the game is played correctly, you will find that better teams are not the ones involved in getting ejected or in any of the issues where someone is taking an intentional kick or grab.”

But Clark argues that having college coaches put on seminars wouldn’t necessarily help high school programs cut down on physical play because at the college level, water polo is even more physically brutal.

With regards to moving the girls season to winter, there are positive and negatives. On the plus side, CCS girls teams would have the chance to compete in the California state tournament which takes place in the winter. However, Clark said because many water polo players are also swimmers and winter is the girls club swimming season, it could hurt U.S. Swimming clubs.

“I would want my girls not to play water polo because we have big (club) meets during the winter,” said Clark, who coaches the Gilroy Gators. “Girls water polo is growing by leaps and bounds. Water polo’s fun and going to water polo is a lot more fun than going to swim laps and there are so many more openings in college to get scholarships.”

Though there is no timeline yet as to when or what decisions will be made about water polo’s future in the CCS, Lazenby Blaser said she would like to have the task force meet before winter break.

Whatever happens, Haines sees the sport only benefiting from the commission’s examination.

“I’m optimistic that the sport is actually going to improve technically,” he said.

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