2018 USA Water Polo Junior Olympics Day Five: The Magic of the Ball

The Mavericks of Menlo Park, CA gather before a 14U game at Junior Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Everardo Luna

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

FREMONT, CA. Day Five of the  2018 USA Water Polo National Junior Olympics—and the first of four days of competition for two divisions of girls play—took place Thursday at Ohlone College. It was an event for day for a couple of clubs for the Northeast, one of which—the Brooklyn Hustle from New York City—won its first ever match at JOs.


First off, Swimming World spoke with Ed Reynolds, SoCal Water Polo Club board member and youth coach. Some readers might remember that last year Coach Reynolds helped explain the phenomenon of the world’s largest youth polo tournament. In this conversation he spoke about the scale of the tournament and why cluster of competition is fueling impressive growth of polo at the age group level.


Photo Courtesy: Everardo Luna

– We’re here watching 14U girls but you could be at Stanford or any one of the bigger, more prestigious pools in the region—but water polo lives everywhere during JOs.

In the first couple of days of this tournament you could be assigned anywhere from the Northside of the East Bay over to Santa Cruz. There’s a lot of separation by time and hours but, all the pools [USA Water Polo] has selected are beautiful.

– Wrapping my head around the national scale of this tournament is challenging enough; then there’s the north / south divide between the California clubs.

There’s a great tournament in volleyball that USA Volleyball where they decide between a festival or a tournament that’s going to be a national championship. Breaking JOs into the brackets [Championship and Classic] that we have is just wonderful because everybody, no matter what level, has a chance to compete in games that matter and games that lead to a championship.

I’m glad that you understand the magnitude of this because now we’ve got a huge tournament. I think it does rival volleyball – it might be the biggest youth tournament in the world.


Photo Courtesy: Everardo Luna

– I think about the Little League World Series of baseball, which gets so much attention—rightly so, when you bring the world together. But that event doesn’t feel as enormous as what’s going on here for a week in Northern California.

You have to remember that the Little League World Series is the result of competition that takes place at the local level. And, it’s the result of a huge sport.

We’re not that big of a sport. This year we’re just about to break the 50,000-member mark. We’re not that big by we have a lot of athletes participating.

It’s not going to winnow down to top teams; it’s a festival and championship tournament [all in one].

– How does USA Water Polo manage for the exceptional growth of JOs while keeping the familiarity that makes water polo in the U.S. so distinctive?

All of these tournaments are limited by facilities. USA Water Polo has determined that this is such an important tournament for everybody that comes out from other parts of the country that we have to find the pools.

To the extent that we’re limited by pools, we have to limit the number of teams that can compete.

If you speak with USA Water Polo, I believe their attitude is: How many teams can we bring in? Because it’s a great experience for the kids.

– How important is it to have teams from all over the country descend on California for this one week of intense water polo action?

My experience with this tournament is that, in the past—before USA Water Polo was reorganized into a new management structure—committees use to decide by vote where the tournament should be held. And JOs were held in Michigan, it was held in Florida and different parts of the country.


Photo Courtesy: Ann-Caroline van der Ham

The underlying idea was that this was what would grow the sport. What we’re finding is that teams from Brooklyn and Michigan, they actually like to come out to California. They like the idea that the tournament is balanced between Southern and Northern California.

That has built the momentum in expanding JO and to generate the respect that your Brooklyn team receives when they play a California team.

– In terms of the regional divide, there’s fierce competition between the NorCal and SoCal teams.

The expansion of the sport is what does it. I don’t know what the numbers are but I would guess that Southern California has a proportionately higher number of players that compete.

The whole NorCal / SoCal rivalry revolves around the number of universities that compete. You’ve got Stanford and Cal, Pacific and San Jose State—universities that kid up here like to attend. Then you have universities down in Southern California like UCLA, USC and San Diego State.


Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Kids are focusing on where they want to go to college, and this sport allows people the opportunity to do that. Down in Southern California, we’re always playing the same teams, so it’s wonderful to come up here for what’s like being in an international match. We get to test the waters against Stanford, 680 and Diablo Alliance.

It’s just wonderful because we don’t get to see them very often during the rest of the year.

– Back East, Bill Smith of Greenwich Aquatics talks about how clusters of competition will really help the sport grow, both inside and outside of California.

We want these kids to be so excited about this sport! I’m a youth girls’ coach—girls 14, 13, 12; all the way down to 8 years old. I like to say that I’m not the water polo technical guy but I am a good marketing guy.

We just want them to play in high school. There’s a lot of states like Texas and Florida that have thousands of high school athletes but we haven’t really organized them into the club terrain.

Bill is always completely right about how we organize and grow the sport. The model that he uses is lacrosse: how did lacrosse grow the way they did?


Photo Courtesy: Ann-Caroline van der Ham

Right now we have an opposite East / West divide in that lacrosse on the East Coast dominates lacrosse on the West. Water polo teams on the West Coast can crush teams in the East.


I’m in ground zero in Orange County where lacrosse [in the West] started and it’s embarrassing. We have the CIF Orange County champions in the high school where I coach water polo and they go East and get crushed.

It’s interesting to watch how these sports attract kids to play.

Next up is Sam Bass, head coach for Chelsea Piers, Connecticut, who spoke with Swimming World after a tough 6-4 loss by Chelsea Piers to open play in the 14 U Classic Division of JOs. The CPAC girls had a fantastic win in their second match, beating San Clemente Tritons by penalty shots in sudden death. CPAC closed out its day with a tough loss to Northeastern rival Brooklyn Hustle.

– How many times have you been out to JOs?


Photo Courtesy: Ann-Caroline van der Ham

This is my fourth-year coaching for Chelsea Piers and I played the prior two years with Chelsea.

I grew up playing for Chelsea, playing for Paul Ramaley since I was 12 years old, then he brought me into the program and I’ve been coaching ever since.

– Your starting goalie Lauren Steele got moved down to U12. How does this affect your team?

We’re here to play. We have an awesome goalie who is playing with the U12s—a National Team Selection Camp player—and she’s down with the 12U. We’re here to play. These girls are waking up, they’re ready to go and they don’t care who’s in the goal, who’s where.

– You gave a pretty good 680 Drivers team a great game.

Any time you play a big club’s “B” team they’re disciplined, they know where to put the ball, they work hard. Our girl’s talent-wise are right there. We’re just as good as that team we played today. It’s just the mental game we need to shore up and as the tournament goes on we’ll be right there.


Brenda Villa and her Mavericks. Photo Courtesy: Everardo Luna

Closing out the day was the sighting of U.S. water polo royalty on the Ohlone College pool deck: Brenda Villa, a four-time Olympian, is the head coach for the 14U Maverick team from Menlo Park. As luck would have it, the Maverick’s opponent was the team from Brooklyn, NY coached by Gabby Juarez, who—like Villa—grew up in Commerce, California and played age group water polo for Commerce.

The teams of the two coaches faced off in the pool—an 8-5 win for the Brooklyn Hustle squad—and after the match Villa and Juarez spoke with Swimming World about their common roots and the basis of their cross-continental contest.

– You are both from Commerce, California and made good through water polo.

Villa: The interesting thing is you have two Commerce [natives]; one’s on the East Coast, one’s on the West Coast. That’s what I like to see because I want polo to become a national sport, so when we get kids on the East Coast playing, it helps.

Not that there’s isn’t enough polo in the East but the more we can crossover and attract new kids, water polo benefits.

Juarez: It’s an honor to go up against an idol. I’m really happy to represent Commerce and also to represent New York City. It’s like we’re all in the family.


Brooklyn Hustle (white caps) vs. Mavericks. Photo Courtesy: Everardo Luna

– Maverick has been here before but Brooklyn is brand new to JOs—and just got their very first win in California over your club.

Villa: It is what it is! You’re here to compete and to have fun. For me and the kids, yes, we’re competitive but it’s all about keeping kids in the game for a long period of time. So congrats to you guys for the first win. That’s awesome!

– You probably don’t know this but Gabby coaches in a pool that is four stories underground… and you can hear the subway rumble past!

Villa: We goth played in an indoor pool in Commerce, and that’s not normal in California. But I don’t think that being four floors underneath with subways can stop polo!

Juarez: It’s definitely a little different! [Both laugh].

Editor’s Note: Swimming World is on the ground all week with stories and quotes from the 2018 USA Water Polo National Junior Olympics. Look for our coverage of the largest youth water polo tournament in the world. If you want to tune into all the action at Stanford’s Avery Aquatics Center, check out FloSwimming’s link to the tournament; for pictures from various JO sites, visit this link for KLC photos.