East Coast Polo Report: Azevedo in Connecticut; North Allegheny in States; Capital and Navy in Annapolis

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Hanna Zeigler has been stalwart in goal all season for North Allegheny including a win last week over McDowell. Photo Courtesy: Anthony Melanson

Coronavirus restrictions have drastically limited water polo competition throughout the country. But in the East—particularly in North Allegheny, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Annapolis in Maryland and Greenwich as well as Stamford in Connecticut—polo play has endured, an encouraging sign for the sport during a challenging period.

north-allegheny-logoThe North Allegheny High School boys’ and girls’ teams open play in September—as the weather permitted—then moved indoors. The result has been a successful if abbreviated season for both teams which, thanks to a sweep against local rival McDowell, will conclude next weekend at Wilson High School in Reading, Pennsylvania. The Lady Tigers defeated the Trojans 9-5 to qualify for what is billed as an “End of Season Tournament” that will replace the annual Pennsylvania state tournament, cancelled due to COVID-19. The North Allegheny boys topped McDowell 12-8 to also punch their ticket to Reading, where they and the Lady Tigers will join teams from all over the state in a winner take all competition.

[Water Polo-Starved North Allegheny Players and Parents Get an Outdoor Fix]

A week ago in Annapolis, Navy Aquatics hosted Capital from the Washington D.C. Beltway. This is significant; not only because they are two of the region’s stronger clubs but due to a byproduct of their cooperation. Capital will send three teams (12U, 14U, 16U) to the Battle of the Bay Tournament, November 11 – 14 in Clearwater, Florida, Now—after competing against Capital—Navy will also send teams to Clearwater.

In Greenwich, Kim Tierney Wang, director of Greenwich Aquatics, started a round-robin league for local high school boys. With 10 teams—including the Greenwich YMCA club team, Brunswick School and Greenwich High School—competing in games every weekend, a championship will take place on November 13 at the Greenwich YMCA.

“So much has been taken away from the boys, but these games have been very competitive,” Tierney Wang said. “They are something that the teams can work towards.”

Also noteworthy: Tony Azevedo’s visit two weekends ago to the Chelsea Piers Field House in Stamford, Connecticut, bringing his 6-8 Sports Challenge to the Connecticut Premier Water Polo Club. Following a Sunday session the five-time Olympian spoke  with Swimming World about the quality of clinic participants, what’s next in 6-8 Sport’s—his company with two-time Olympic gold medalist Maggie Steffens—partnership with CPWPC and why national team coaches in California should pay more attention to quality athletes on the opposite coast.

[When Tony Comes to Town: Azevedo in Connecticut, Talks Polo with TWp]

Following is an edited and condensed transcript of SW’s conversation with Azevedo and a follow-up discussion with Scott Schulte, director of CPWPC.

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Tony Azevedo in the middle of things with CPWPC athletes last month. Photo Courtesy: Jenn Lewis

Swimming World: You came to Chelsea Piers Field House in Connecticut to work with Northeastern water polo athletes. What was your impression?

Azevedo: The venue’s unbelievable. This is place that we need to do more in—not only because the venue is perfect but because you’re in an environment of athleticism. You see a hockey game going on. There’s weight-lifting… you’re watching parents in the stands filming. When it comes to athleticism you want to be around greatness.

As far as the players go, I’m impressed anywhere I go around our country or in the world. And it pisses me off. I will go to a camp and find kids—at this camp, probably five kids—who I believe should be training with the national team right now. Who cares [that] some of them are 14, 15 years old? Some are older and should have been training earlier. They need those opportunities.

The kids were well-behaved and I would say at the lower level the biggest thing they lack is the basics of legs and posture. That’s something our partnership with Connecticut Premiere can fix. We can make sure that everyone here has that foundation.

SW: When you say: “fix” is it that you, your father Ricardo, Maggie Steffens, Ashleigh Johnson, Jesse Smith or Peter Hudnut will come back to Stamford? Or, is this about various digital applications you have to measure performance?

Azevedo: All of the above. First, we’re going to test the athletes [from Chelsea Premier Water Polo Club]. Then, Maggie, my dad and I are going to look at the data and see where they’re weak. We’ll send them video and training ideas to focus on the things they need.

Instead of saying: Why would you do that, it’s: You guys are good here and need work here. Let’s set up two stations where everyone working on legs is here, people who need to work on speed are here, ball handling… [to] work on the things they need to work on.

There are five – six kids who are phenomenal, but there’s 20 who were weak in two, three categories which inhibited them from getting them to the top. So, let’s fix that.

We will be sending out, Maggie, myself, my father, Ashleigh—any Olympians to help out.

SW: You’re saying that five athletes here are deserving of support from the national team program—and people in the East believe that—but when it comes to who does or doesn’t make national team rosters for development, Cadet or Juniors, it’s folks in California who are perhaps biased towards athletes in their part of the country. How does this get changed?

Azevedo: The number one reason we started with [6-8 Sports] measurables is that exactly. We wanted parents to be able to understand: my kid’s from Brooklyn, they’ll never have a chance. Wait a minute; Elektra [Urbatch] today, who is the number one in the world at her age. It’s phenomenal! And she’s from Brooklyn.

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Elektra Urbatch in black cap. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Now, as a parent you [believe]: she can be great. She does have a chance. So, let’s work to get her into the system. That’s where measurables come in; when parents complain: my kid didn’t play. Look at where they are. This is what they need to work on.

The other part is, I’m a different breed. 6-8 [Sports] is my company and it’s built in the growth of this sport. There’s no politics going into what we do. If I see someone good I’ll tell them—and I’ll call a college coach and tell them. And I’m going to tell them what they need to work on.

We’re starting an “invite only” [tournament] and I’m going to invite the five kids from [Stamford]. I want them to go against the top ten from California and the top six I invited from Texas and the top four from Chicago. That’s what they need.

Unfortunately, I can only do this once a year. We need to make it mandatory that for some [national team] events there are kids from all of these regions.

One of the sad things I find when I go outside is that coaches and clubs are so closed.

SW: Going back to that, 6-8 Sports has aspirations for developing athletes on this coast and in Puerto Rico. How do events outside of California play into what should be a national strategy for growing polo in the U.S.?

Azevedo: One of the big things that we’ve been doing is, we have a partner in Chicago, we have a partner in Texas, now one in Connecticut and the New York region and one in New Zealand. As we grow, we will be able to see these athletes evolve. We’ll be able to take the better young athletes and invite them to… an all-star [tournament] in Croatia we do every summer.

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Jack Merrill and Azevedo. Photo Courtesy: Jenn Lewis

That’s a way we can get all our affiliates together and go to Florida for a week and do some awesome training together—invite only, just these kids. That’s what I think will help the most.

The problem with these big tournaments—the HaBa WaBas, the international [ones]—JOs is JOs; you need that. Is it worth it for some kids, probably not? Other [kids]—definitely.

But, we play too many of these games. What we need is to go back to training with kids who are a little bit better or the same. Not go to a tournament to get killed or kill. You need to go to a training camp with the five boys and girls that I just saw, you add a couple of those, mix them with some of the top [players] from California and let’s train every day.

You could see today how much better these [players] got because I’m in the water with them saying “No, no, no! [or] Yes, yes, yes!” They’re pushing each other, getting excited and that’s where you really grow.

SW: But, you’re flying against the convention of the Vanguards and the Socals and the Huntington Beaches of the polo world that only the best train in California. Are there political concerns that prevent these East Coast kids from moving forward?

Azevedo: The parents are the ones who sometimes keep things from moving forward. Going to the best clubs, I totally understand it. But, is your kid going to play? Or, is your kid riding the pine [while] the team wins that gold medal?

The Socals, the Vanguards—they’re in the Mecca of water polo. They can choose who they want. But if I’m a parent, especially at a younger age, I worry about results. I worry about what my kid needs to improve. That comes down to basics and the knowledge of the game. If they have that, when they’re 15, 16 go ahead and put them on a top team. Or, he’s pushing all his [current] teammates and raising the level of where they are.

What’s happening now [is] one or two kids are good, they take off, and then that team’s done.

At our elite academy in the States we have kids from all over the country—Florida, Texas, Oregon. The girl from Oregon just signed with USC; no one knew her a year ago. She trained with us for a year.

All of the sudden Oregon’s on the map. Now, Texas is back on the map.

Does it make sense for top East Coast athletes like Urbatch and Jack Merrill to follow the path of Thomas Dunston and move West for training?

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Bebe Currie shows her prowess during the 6-8 Challenge. Photo Courtesy: Jenn Lewis

They can definitely make it. They were here today. There’s a lot of good kids in this area but they’re the ones who came today. They’re going the extra step and they’re doing it on their own. Elektra continues to improve as an athlete and Jack—what he was from a year ago is amazing.

The five that I mentioned were here a year ago, went through the challenge and understood where they needed to go and then worked on it.

The disadvantage is that you’re not getting as many games, so the kids in California may be evolving at a higher rate. But they’re also getting injured a lot more because they’re playing these mindless games—that’s what everyone cares about now.

If they can be smarter here; I heard the girls are playing with some of the boys, which is a different game, but that’s good for them. Jack’s playing with NYAC [New York Athletic Club] and training when some of the college [players] come. That’s great for him.

They’re going to have to be more creative but I definitely see a chance for them.

***

Scott Schulte, CPWPC Executive Director:

Swimming World: Tony Azevedo came to your facility this weekend. How important was this to your club establishing an identity in the Northeast?

Scott Schulte: I’ve known Tony a long time with the New York Athletic Club. We know him not only as a great player but a great ambassador, a great communicator and very enthusiastic about spreading the wealth and experience of water polo.

Tony validates our program to the people around us. You’re only as good as the competition and coaching that you get. Having Tony here and giving the [players] a sense of what [success] can be, giving them an understanding of what it takes to get there, showing by example—all [this] is invaluable in getting kids to really engage in the sport.

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Lots of room to operate in Connecticut. Photo Courtesy: Jenn Lewis

The more we can get of that going forward, the better.

[And] the program with Tony; just like he’s partnering with Maggie, we’re partnering with him. Our objective is to have a relationship; not him coming once and that’s it. This is an engagement [situation]. The 6-8 [Sports] program will be an ongoing process. They’ll be watching our kids develop, we’ll be watching our kids develop.

I was very happy with all the things Tony’s doing and I believe he has aspirations of helping develop the sport on a national basis.

SW: Azevedo pointed out that there were five athletes in the older group that should be included in national team training. How do you see Connecticut Premier supporting their development so they realize the potential that Tony—and others—see?

Schulte: It’s the consistency. You can’t rely on an ODP or a JOs to get recognized. Having been around it as long as I have, the ability of these players to get the consistent competition and training to compete; [not] doing it only through Connecticut Premier but doing it through the zone.

Going out for one week and only picking an all-star team, which is really more of a showcase than development, isn’t the most effective way to do it.

To get all these kids [in the East] opportunities—California kids get to play against each other all the time. And the California coaches who dominate the sport get to see them all the time. So, what do you do? Do you have [California] coaches out here more? Do you have players out there more?

Like Tony said, [John] Vargas [Stanford men’s head coach] would look at a kid if he had a certain time on select sprints. Jack Merrill has shooting that’s off the charts for an 11th grader; does he get recognized because he can shoot?

They don’t have to see that—they can see the stats.

I’m considering coaching symposiums, where coaches here have [their peers] from other parts of the country or the world show them what they do.

It’s the consistency of doing [these things]; a lot of East Coast teams can play with kids out in California up until the age of 14. Then, between 14 and 17 the disparity builds because of the ability to train and compete. Having the younger kids playing with NYAC and better players, younger kids getting out to California more and training.

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