ODP East Regional Championship in Greensboro Aquatic Center is a Hit for USA Water Polo

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Scoreboard at Greensboro Aquatics Center as backdrop for recent ODP East Regional Championship. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

USA Water Polo, the national governing body for the sport in America, has demonstrated a willingness of late to expand out of its California base to promote water polo in the U.S. The most recent example of its growth strategy was on display a week ago at the first-ever Olympic Development Program (ODP) East Regional Championship, a regional age group tournament held at the Greensboro Aquatic Center in North Carolina.

usawpIn the mix were 22 boys’ and 18 girls’ teams from the Great Lakes, Midwest, Northeast and Southeast Zones, and they played 75 games over January 11–13. And, as part of its commitment to the weekend, USAWP organizers donated polo equipment—nets and balls—and organized a splashball clinic, making for a total environment for the sport’s growth.

The verdict? The event was a hit; and it will almost certainly happen again next year, perhaps with even more teams.

“On the East Coast, and in particular our area, we’re always struggling with more games—so the past weekend was absolutely a great idea,” said Miras Jelic, one of the 14U coaches for the Northeast Zone. “[W]hen I spoke with [USA Water Polo’s] Anne Lawrence and Bryan Linton, they said: We didn’t know what to expect because Greensboro, North Carolina—nobody was thinking about water polo there.

“But you go and see this amazing facility, and the energy from local people to make this to be the best experience for everyone… It was just super-successful.”

Refining the Selection Process

What distinguishes this tournament is that Greensboro represents an added layer in the selection process for the ODP National Championships in Riverside, CA on March 1–3. Rather than, as in the past, relying on two ODP camps in the fall for selection, USAWP leadership decided that a regional tournament that embraced the under-represented Great Lakes, Midwest, Northeast and Southeast would be the determining factor in deciding who would play for those zones in the ODP Championships.

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Overview at GAC. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

Jelic, who oversaw regional ODP camps in November and December, said that the increased number of attendees helped drive the decision to select a final roster through tournament play.

“In each of the two camps, you had over 75 kids, from that number you will pick 14–15 players who will represent our zone in California,” he said. “Having this competition…is a great opportunity for kids who maybe would not make the team [at the camps] but they have the competition now to get that confidence that this is the right sport for them.”

Part of the success of any tournament is the venue and its convenience. In that regard, the GAC scored high on many levels. Not only is it one of the finest regional aquatics facilities on the East Coast, its appeal was not limited to fantastic water. With multiple hotels, access to a high-volume airport and a small but growing community of age group water polo players, Greensboro was a bold and brilliant stroke in bringing a high-level tournament to a region with favorable prospects and great potential for polo.

“There was no youth water polo in Greensboro four years ago, [and] only one team in the state,” said Eric Gordon, head coach and administrator for Carolina Water Polo. “To have over 500 players come in, including our own players, and then all the officials and [USA] Water Polo people, coaches, referees—to have them come to the city I grew up in that didn’t have any water polo; I never thought I would see anything like this.”

[North/South Tournament Showcases Polo’s Growth in North Carolina]

The Greensboro event offered better competition for athletes whose areas simply don’t have the depth of talent or high-level opportunities to compete that exists in California, home to the country’s best polo-playing clubs and colleges.

Out of Their Comfort Zones—but There’s No Place Like Home

Raising the level of competition, especially in the East, was a key point of a recent Swimming World interview with Leslie Entwistle, who for 17 years was a coach with the Navy Aquatics Program and then helped found Capital Polo in Washington D.C.

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Coach Gordon and his polo-playing proteges. Photo Courtesy: Eric Gordon

“We’ve learned—and I coached ODP for five years—that if we can get the athletes to step up at ODP nationals and get recognized by these national team coaches, then they’re on the radar for collegiate coaches,” Entwistle said. And she pointed out that getting out of their comfort zones is essential for athletes in the East to fully develop.

“East Coast coaches need to do that for our water polo players,” she said. “Just staying in their home towns and playing doesn’t give them the flavor of what it’s like to compete at a higher level.”

Perhaps the most compelling argument for this new tournament’s success comes from a participant for Gordon’s program. Tessa Bucher, whom Greg Mescall, USA Water Polo’s Director of Communications dubbed the “Unofficial First Lady of North Carolina Water Polo,” was ecstatic about a high-level event so close to home.

“It’s absolutely amazing. We’ve never had anything like this in North Carolina. To be able to drive 30 minutes and come and play all these games… It’s really cool,” the teenager said.

When asked how to get more girls involved with polo, Tessa added, “It’s a very small sport here in North Carolina, so the more we talk about it, the more clinics we have, the more invitationals—and things like this to get more girls out, that’s really key.”

While it’s hard to say whether Carolina and other eastern environs will prove fertile ground for the sport at high levels, this bold move by USAWP is an encouraging step for a national governing body that has shown a commitment to a “Johnny Appleseed” approach, bringing opportunity to areas that show potential for polo.

6 comments

  1. avatar

    It was a great event and I am excited to see water polo continuing to grow here in NC!

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Kristine:

      Thank you for your comments. I was not there (full disclosure, my son attended) so I heard great things (which is what I reported).

      I think it bears mentioning that there are SO MANY great things happening on our coast at the moment; Eric Gordon’s fantastic efforts to grow NC Water Polo, Miras Jelic (and others) working w/Capital Polo in D.C.; Jacob Henry at SwimRVA in Richmond, VA, Leslie Entwistle at The St. James in Springfield, VA and Kim Tierney / Greenwich Aquatics with the Tri-State League in CT. This – plus the efforts of USAWP in the region – are IMO making a real difference for polo in the East.

      Your correspondent

      • avatar
        Byrne Boys

        Very exciting times in our zone — don’t forget the 1 year-old team at University of Maryland, Potomac Waterpolo, founded and coached by recent GW players.

      • avatar
        Michael Randazzo

        Thanks for your comments! I have heard about Potomac – and believe you’re competing at the Snowball Showdown up in Stamford, CT this weekend.

        All the best,

        Your correspondent

  2. avatar

    I hope USA Water Polo keeps up the support for growing the sport out CA.
    The sport is growing in all these states NC, VA, TN, GA, FL, PA – parents and players are being exposed to the greatness of this sport and finding out it is a great alternative to football or basketball; but the support needs to keep growing.
    People like Eric Gordon in NC have been working so hard to make the sport available to kids and they need to be recognize for all they do. I hope USWP see that and help the sport all over the USA.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Marcio:

      Thanks for your comments. I can say (with conviction!) that USA Water Polo is paying attention b/c that’s exactly why they created the ODP East Regional Championship.

      The flip side of this is parental support—of both athletes and opportunities. It’s one thing to schedule an event (tournament, clinic, showcase); it’s another to get the turnout that makes these events worthwhile. As a parent (right?!) I assume that you know what it takes to do this; clearly, the more that parents like you get involved / spread the word the more polo will grow in these parts.

      All the best to you and your child’s club; I hope to run into both of you at an East Coast event…

      Your correspondent