Editor’s Note: The end is near for the 2021 water polo season. TWp is looking back on the five biggest story lines of the year. Today we focus on positive developments for the upcoming year. Tomorrow we’ll consider what challenges from the previous year will carry on into 2022.
As we enter a new year—at the conclusion of one which began with our country (and many others) struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and closes with another the surge of the virus—today’s question is: Where are things going?
When it comes to water polo, there are clear signs that the primary direction is “Up”—and it’s the hope of many that the latest COVID-19 variant will be kept at bay, allowing 2022 becomes a great year for the sport.
Water polo will grow exponentially in Texas…maybe
A decades-long hope is that Texas—one of the country’s biggest aquatics markets—will fully embrace the sport and make the Lone Star State a legitimate rival to California, home to America’s largest concentration of polo athletes, clubs and collegiate programs. The University Interscholastic League (UIL), which oversees most athletic, musical, and academic contests for public schools in Texas, has confirmed that the 2022-23 school year will see a long-awaited pilot project for polo.
There’s already fertile ground in the Lone Star State for the sport; since the 1970s the Texas Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association (TISCA) have been operating the Texas High School Water Polo State Championship—a tournament that now encompasses 32 boys’ and girls’ teams who qualify through regional competition.
The UIL put the pilot project off for two years due to the pandemic. Now, with so much of the country eager to move past the constrictions imposed by the virus, it is expected that a dream of many will at last be fulfilled.
“2022 is going to be a big year for water polo in Texas. Sure, we’ve been saying nearly the same thing for the past few Decembers. But this time we mean it,” Smith responded by email.
“First, let’s set aside any chance that something like a generation-defining viral pandemic will halt the progress that’s expected in the coming year. Here’s what 2022 will look like. It will be the first and (likely) last calendar year in which two genuine, state-wide high school water polo seasons will take place.”
This is a reference to the schedule in Texas for 2022. The spring season—which according to Smith is considered club play—will be overseen by the TISCA. Last May St. Marks School in Dallas beat Dawson 12-6 in a boy’s state final that was postponed from the fall due to COVID-19.
“In just a few weeks the final TISCA high school club water polo season will start,” Smith said. “While numbers of programs fluctuate from year-to-year, TISCA has tallied up to around 165 teams interested in participating with plans for 200 in the coming years.
“That’s under TISCA (with some occasional exceptions), which has served the sport well since the 70s. But while high school club water polo has had the benefit of being highly flexible in the way it encourages growth it could never match the prestige that comes from UIL sanction. The first ever high school water polo season under the auspices of the UIL will begin in August. That, in our minds, is a turning point in the sport.
“But not immediately,” he added, sowing a smidgen of doubt regarding how bright the sport’s future is in Texas.
“It is entirely possible that there will be noticeably fewer programs taking part in the fall of 2022 compared to the spring,” Smith continued. “It is simply more complicated administratively to field a UIL team than it is to start a high school club. Programs won’t be ready this fall. But they will be in 2023, and 2024, and so on.
“That’s where the hope lies, justifiably so in our opinion. Because while the growth of high school water polo is encouraging, it’s the inevitable trickle-down effect that could make it an outright boon for Texas clubs, existing and new ones. We think it will.”
It was announced in December that the Round Rock Independent School District, which encompasses 56 schools and 50,000 students in and around Austin, will field boys and girls water polo teams from three of its high schools. In addition, a $16 million aquatic center being built by the district at its Cedar Ridge campus remains on track for a spring 2022 opening.
Smith, who along with Joe Linehan, a regional manager for USA Water Polo, a regular podcast on all Texas water polo happenings, also pointed to 2021 highlights for his state, which included hosting national JOs for the first time.
In late July Dallas was the site for all the boys and girls club teams outside of California—the first time JOs took place outside of the Golden State since the 2001 when they were held in Ann Arbor.
“What else in 2022? Well, Junior Olympics in Dallas went so well in 2021 they’re doing it again this summer. There are noises about ODP championships of some kind coming back to San Antonio again too. And feedback from participants at 2021 Masters National Championships was sufficiently positive to make it possible it’ll return to North Texas too (masters athletes enjoy barbecue and beer if you sample social media even a little).
Smith acknowledged that the greatest draw for national events in Texas is the indoor aquatics facilities that dot the state, many of which are less than a decade old, and are as impressive as any throughout the country.
“The infrastructure is there, the number of very high-quality facilities are increasing, the know-how is accumulating,” he said. “There’s more water polo coming to Texas for sure. How quickly, how much is up for debate. But it’s coming, and there’s a chance it’ll genuinely alter the course of water polo in America.”
Competitive play returns to Puerto Rico in advance of the 2022 Central America Games
Once upon a time the “Island of Enchantment”—which is how many think of Puerto Rico—hosted one of the Caribbean’s strongest water polo programs. Harry Hauck, the father of water polo on the island, help beget a highly competitive polo program that provided a pipeline for aspiring players to find success in the U.S.
Along with many things in Puerto Rico, aquatic sports on the island have endured a difficult decade, including major interruptions due to natural disasters and COVID-19.
Now, for the first time in a decade, they will have a masters’ league for competition, the beginning of a revival in the region.
“We have a lot of players over the age of 21, college and post-college who have a lot of interest in continuing to play,” said Blanco Rivera, mother of Eugenio Maldonado, who is a member of the Puerto Rican water polo team. “Many of them have joined the group of masters to keep playing.
“We have the talent,” added Rivera, president of the new league’s board of directors. “I am confident that this minimum of four teams can be given.”
The league, slated to begin in May, hopes to include four men’s and two women’s teams. In theory it will deter talented polo athletes from abandoning their sport due to the lack of tournaments.
Potential venues include the Natatorium in San Juan; the UPRM Natatorium in Mayagüez; the Víctor Vasallo facility in Ponce; and the Albergue Olímpico in Salinas. Holding competition throughout the country is essential for raising recognition of the sport.
“The idea is that the games are in different places because we want there to be a team, for example, from Ponce,” said Rivera.
And, timely; the 2022 Central American Games will be held in El Salvador in December. The Federación Puertorriqueña de Natación, which oversees all aquatics sports on the island, will hope to put its best polo foot forward to qualify for the Pan American Games, to be held next year in Santiago, Chile.
Age group tournaments in early 2022 may be a bellwether for the sport
There will be play early and often for the new year. Next weekend, the Greensboro Aquatics Center in North Carolina, will host the East Regional Olympic Development (ODP) Championships and Evaluation tournament, encompassing teams from the Great Lakes, Midwest, Northeast and Southwest Zones.
Also, that weekend, the Hawai’i, Mountain, Pacific Northwest and Southwest Zones will compete at Olympus High School in Holladay, Utah in the West Regional Olympic Development (ODP) Championships and Evaluation tournament.
The first major club tournament in the East will be held Presidents’ Day weekend—the South Florida International Water Polo Tournament is at capacity for teams from the 2003 (boys and girls), 2006 (boys and girls) and 2008 (coed) brackets. One of the most popular tournaments in the region, the Coral Springs Aquatics Complex, located outside of Fort Lauderdale.
Out West, the annual Frozen Cup Tournament in East Bay, California will be held the last weekend of January / first weekend in February. 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U boys and girls from all over the country will compete.
With luck—and clear COVID protocols—these and many other tournaments will kickstart what promises to be a great year for the sport.