In mid season four years ago the swim coach at Cleveland, Tennessee High School surprised the team with his exit. With scant options, Tim Davis, whose son was a member of the team, volunteered to take on the job. He hasn’t left since.
When the Porterville, California native threw the water polo balls in the pool to break the monotony of several-thousand yard workouts he saw something unusual.
“During swim workouts the kids like to hang their watches on the starting blocks. They look at them all the time during practice. When we played water polo I had to kick them out of the pool. They never checked their watches.”
Thus the genesis of high school water polo in the Volunteer State, which will stage its first state championship next spring in Cleveland.
For several years Davis proposed at the state’s annual swim coaching association (TISCA) meeting the addition of water polo to the schedule. The swim season was getting progressively longer over time and he thought the kids would enjoy a break from the training. But if even one association coach dissented the issue would be tabled until the next TISCA meeting, one full year later.
So the issue was delayed several times. With the 2012 spring meeting approaching Davis knew he could use help in making his case. He asked USA Water Polo if they could. They did, sending their Membership Director to present the advantages of offering water polo, and the dissent was quieted. With unanimous approval the sport is on the spring schedule. Now Davis has the management of the state’s water polo competition in his hands.
“Be careful what you wish for, right?” he quipped.
Four zones will compete this spring: the West is anchored by Memphis, the Middle by Nashville; Knoxville centers the East, and Chattanooga and Cleveland will make up the fourth. The system mimics the way swimming is organized. As always, there is some resistance.
“Some national-level [swim] coaches won’t embrace it and won’t participate. They would like to see polo off on its own. They eventually want to see it leave TISCA.”
But the advantages are clear too, one of which is offering swimmers a break from swim training while still keeping them in shape. It works the opposite way as well.
“The athletes are already in swim shape [in the spring] so we can focus on fundamentals and tactics,” Davis said.
The state is also taking advantage of the growth of water polo in neighboring Georgia, which after just a few years is already broadcasting state high school championship matches on TV. Davis took his team across the border to compete against the Peach State’s best. It was a learning experience.
“The first time we played the Georgia state champions the girls weren’t prepared for how physical it is.”
The Georgia connection has also helped with funding. USA Water Polo helped give Davis’ efforts credibility, while American Waterpolo, the Pennsylvania-based organization that sanctions Georgia’s competitive leagues, helped fund Cleveland’s trips to scrimmage teams in North Georgia.
“Without USA Water Polo working together with American Waterpolo this wouldn’t have happened,” says Davis.
That regional connection could be vital to the growth of Tennessee water polo, providing a ready source of competition for its teams, new and established. And with a model like Georgia’s, which grew from four teams in 2006 to 18 presently, and a heritage of swimming excellence, Tennessee could quickly become another center of water polo growth in the South.