East and West Collide at The Champions Cup 14U Water Polo Tournament in Bloomington

Photo Courtesy: Justin Casterline/USA Water Polo

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

Last weekend 24 of best boys’ and girls’ teams from USA Water Polo’s 11 geographic zones gathered at Indiana University in Bloomington for the Champions Cup, considered to be one of the country’s most prestigious tournaments for 14 and under competition.

The roster of teams reads like a Who’s Who of the best polo programs in California, including CC United, Commerce, Newport Beach, Rose Bowl, Stanford, 680 Drivers, San Diego Shores and Socal. Also in attendance were local Midwestern teams Chicago Parks, Northern Illinois Polo Club and West Suburban, while Greenwich of Connecticut represented the East Coast.

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A total of 64 games were played over three days in IU’s Counsilman-Billingsley Aquatics Center. and when it was all over 680 Drivers captured the boys title, beating LA Premier 16-5, while Socal was a 10-5 winner over Commerce in the girl’s final.

What made for a compelling story and tournament is that the California teams—who now have the luxury of Junior Olympics in their backyard, alternating between Northern or Southern California—had to make a long trek to the East to face some familiar and not-so familiar foes. Swimming World spoke with coaches from two different coasts; Ashley Hill, an assistant coach with the Stanford Water Polo Club, and Ulmis Iordace, head coach for the Greenwich Aquatics club.

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Ashley Hill, Stanford Water Polo Assistant Coach; Hill is currently the head boys and girls swim coach at Cathedral Catholic High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Most recently she coached boys’ water polo at the 12U, 14U, and 16U levels for Stanford Water Polo Club.

– Tell us what some of your 14U boys had to say about the “good, the bad and the ugly” of this year’s Champions Cup.

They really liked getting to travel farther than they’re used to. That was fun for them. They go down to LA quite often and travel around the Bay Area a lot. So getting on a plane to travel—that was a fun adventure.

They really liked seeing IU [and] the college town of Bloomington. That was a super fun experience because it was something different.

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Counsilman-Billingsley Aquatics Center. Photo Courtesy: Indiana Athletics

One of their struggles was, they loved the natatorium and thought it was a neat environment. IU’s pool is fantastic as far as aesthetics go, so when you bring a bunch of 14U [players] whose dream might include being a college athlete, All-American or Olympian, when you walk on to IU’s pool deck, it fills that dream in automatically.

Some of them struggled with being in an indoor pool—that was new for them. So there was definitely an advantage for some kids who come from the Midwest or out East, who are used to being in indoor water.

– Is it a novelty or somewhat of an annoyance that anywhere you go for high-level competition some of you can’t escape some of the best California teams?

You can’t! [Laughs] It builds a healthy rivalry for our kids—Socal is one of those rivalries, as is 680. We ended up playing both of those teams; we beat Socal [16-0] and lost to 680 [10-9 in the semifinals].

Our boys start to know each other [because] they play each other a lot. I do think there’s that: We traveled half-wat across the country to play a lot of California teams. But look at Greenwich, playing in and winning the third-place game. Part of what Champions Cup brings to this 14U level is that it gives maybe more of an opportunity for Midwest and East Coast teams to participate in a championship tournament.

Because we don’t have to travel that far, California teams can take that for granted. We can drive to almost every [major tournament]. If you’re one of the Chicago teams or from Florida or Greenwich, you have to fly or you don’t get to play.

Bringing good competition closer to those regions will help grow the sport and give confidence to those teams that they can compete with the California teams—which is great for the sport.

– Given how many tournaments your club participates in, what makes the Champions Cup important for the development of your athletes?

It teaches them at a young age how to travel, how to comport themselves as a high-level athlete, whether on an ODP [Olympic Development Program] team or as you perhaps start to travel [representing] our country. Or for high-level high school or college play.

You have an understanding what it is to represent your club of your school. How—when you’re on the road in an unfamiliar place—how do you eat healthy? How do you make good decisions?

Being a part of a championship format that doesn’t have a backdoor. One of the greatest things about JOs is that clubs have a second chance, but this is a championship tournament where’s there’s not a backdoor. You drop a game early on and you’re out of championship contention.

We dropped that semifinal game, and now you’re in the third-place game. You have to own those errors that you may have made then move on and play that next game.

For young players that’s a great lesson to learn.

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Ulmis Iordace, Greenwich Aquatics Head Coach; Iordace oversees all age group teams at Greenwich Aquatics, a position that he’s held for the past eight years. He is also the head water polo coach for The Brunswick School, a private boys school in Greenwich, and Greenwich Academy, a private girls school, also in Greenwich.

– How difficult is it to get two teams together and out to Bloomington?

We love this tournament. It’s an important fall goal to work towards after we come back from Junior Olympics. We have August off and then we have a nice goal for this tournament and for Rock-tober, both of them.

It’s a high-quality tournament; every time [USA Water Polo] hosts a tournament at a different university, all of them are great. the kids get to see the campus and they get to look forward to one day playing for one of these schools.

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Ulmis Iordace. Photo Courtesy: Greenwich Sentinel

t’s a high-level tournament; not many teams—only 12—some of the best in the country.

– The difference with this tournament is now you have West Coast teams coming East.

What I’ve noticed is that it’s a team-bonding [opportunity] for teams; they rent a van, they wear the same shirts—I’ve even see them wearing ties when they travel on the plane together. They take it very seriously, and it’s always nice to be on a campus like [Indiana University].

– How did your teams finish up?

We finished third for the boys; we could have played better against LA Premier [a 7-3 loss] and made the final. But it doesn’t always go how you want.

We ended up playing Stanford which is a really good team—their coach said that they should have been in the final too—and it was a really good game for third place.

We have a good generation of kids who are very talented workers. They like to compete and they show up—both boys and girls. This is the best we’ve ever done; last year [the boys] placed fifth.

Coming from the East Coast—most of the teams there come from the West Coast—our boys and girls did great.

– How does this type of success create a bond among your 14U players?

They get to see it, they get to experience it. The roster is 14 and under so there’s two or three 12-year-olds. They get to see the older guys fighting for the win; hopefully we can carry that through our even younger players.

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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