On The Record with Barry Creighton, Winter Park Head Water Polo Coach

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Barry Creighton, Winter Park Head Water Polo Coach, surrounded by his players. Photo Courtesy: Winter Park HS Athletics

Following a disputed decision in the 2018 Florida Girls’ Water Polo Tournament, Barry Creighton—Winter Park High School boys and girl polo coach for a quarter of a century—became embroiled in highly publicized controversy with the Florida High Schools Athletic Association (FHSAA).

Winter Park won a girls regional playoff match last year against Lake Mary, only to have the FHSAA cry foul. Following the Wildcats’ 7-6 win in triple overtime, it was revealed that the referees followed the wrong overtime format. The FHSAA then reversed the outcome, deciding in a unanimous vote that a sudden-death format should have been applied. Much to the dismay of the Winter Park players, fans—and coach—the Rams were awarded a 5-4 win.

winter-park-logoCreighton, one of the state’s most accomplished polo coaches, turned last year’s disappointment into this year’s opportunity. The Wildcats advanced to the 2019 girls’ final before dropping a 11-6 decision to Ransom Everglades.

Continuing the Wildcats’ string of success is nothing new for Creighton, a one-time Californian. Formerly the Winter Park boys’ and girls’ swim coach, he has enjoyed great success in the Orlando area, with numerous top finishes in swimming and three boys’ and three girls’ state polo championships—though none since the FHSAA officially sanctioned the sport in 2004.

A former club swimmer and water polo player at Indiana, where he met his wife, Rosalie, Creighton has coached both his children to aquatic success. His son Trevor was a state champion in the 200 Free Relay and All American in 200 Medley Relay before attending Iona, where he swam and played polo for the Gaels. Daughter Summer was an All-American in swimming and three-time All-American in water polo for Winter Park. She played for four years at Indiana University, helping the Hoosiers to the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

Swimming World recently spoke with Creighton about his team’s disappointment in 2018, this year’s march to the title match, and how Florida high school water polo is perhaps experiencing growing pains—as evidenced by a string of high-profile referee blunders.

– In back-to-back years there’s been referee problems in the Florida High School Athletic Association’s girl’s water polo tournament.

With officials, you always strive for consistency. You’d like to think that if you have a game played in the state of Florida you’re having a consistency of calls from area to area [and] game to game and quarter to quarter.

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Winter Park 2017 girls water polo team. Photo Courtesy: Winter Park HS Athletics

I feel that in central Florida, our referees, they’ve been fairly consistent. We have good leadership with Jack Horton advising the officials and tries to keep them on the same page.

It’s unfortunately not the case from different regions. Miami-Dade and then Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach are all different. When we go to tournaments in Miami, their officials are going to call things differently. It’s tough for the coaches and the athletes to adjust to that.

Consistency is what you want—you get that by training. We’ve been on the unfortunate end of a few situations. [But] very infrequently do the officials cause you to win or lose. You play the whole game and there’s going to be calls either way—some for you and some against.

[On Deck With Jack Horton, Referee, Coach, Photographer and Life-Long Polo Enthusiast]

Of course I think my team should get the call every time—that’s part of my job. If you make every pass and make every shot and do everything you should then minor differences don’t decide the game.

– Given your team’s disputed match last year, how do you evaluate what took place in the Ramson vs. Hialeah semifinal match in May, when the defending state champion Thoroughbreds lost on a disputed goal?

It’s in the rulebook that referee’s decisions are final. And, they miss things.

[What] happened to Hialeah, where there was a foul and that girl swam down the pool and shot it, [that] happened in one of our games. My assistant coach noticed it—I didn’t notice it at the time, I was worried about something else. It happened and you play on.

In our game last year at the very end of regulation we ran a play and got a shot off, and the girl—a field player—clearly blocked it with two hands. The refs didn’t see it at all. I don’t know how, but they didn’t see it.

We go to overtime and both agree [on the format]. We had played another overtime game previously with the same rules—two overtime periods. So we couldn’t go back and dispute the two-hand block at that point because the referees didn’t see it. They don’t use any video evidence [and] don’t consider that for anything.

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Photo Courtesy: Winter Park HS Athletics

The odd thing was, referees’ decisions are supposed to be final. Two days later, they decided that the refs decision wasn’t final. They used a precedent from a soccer game that had occurred five-six years ago, [where] the referees used the incorrect overtime procedure and then overturned [the result].

I said, that doesn’t mean it’s right and suggested that [since] it was a misapplication of the rules we should just go back and play the overtime [again]. You approach the whole thing differently if it’s sudden death.

– What happened when you put forth the idea of replaying the match?

They rejected everything out of hand. We had three – four days where we could have [replayed the game]. The fairest way is to decide it in the pool. If we win, we win; if we lose—then you have your chance at least.

I know it’s been done in other places [where] they’ve gone back and replayed the end of games. But [the FHSAA] didn’t want to consider that.

They had a big hearing—we did appeal [the change]—and we had attorneys involved. That was probably the most disheartening thing. It’s a conference call, so the kids are all listening. I’m with the principal and the county attorneys and they made very persuasive arguments. They refuted everything the FHSAA [said] and their reasoning behind it.

They debated for all of two minutes, had a vote and voted it down 9-0.

It was a sham, essentially. They had decided beforehand. And for the girls to listen to all this and see this is how the real world works, that was disheartening, to say the least.

– How do you say to a player—especially a senior—that this how the last game of your season ends?

It’s tremendously difficult. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that they were going to do this.

I coach swimming too and I’ve had decisions with some disqualifications—we didn’t have dual confirmation in relays and whatnot—[but this time] they said: No. Our officials made the call and this is it.

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Photo Courtesy: Annie Tworoger, 3rd & Ocean

To have them reverse this, out of the blue when there was no controversy during the game…. Everyone went home and we were happy and it was very exciting. You’d like to see them do the best thing for the athletes. Even though we had really won the game. I could see if they said they’d misapplied the rules, then go back to that point. If we didn’t win then, we didn’t deserve to win.

I don’t think consistency is their strong suit… or logic, sometimes.

– Your team made the state final this year; was there additional motivation based upon how things went in last year’s playoffs?

It’s in the back of their minds but it wasn’t something that we dwelled on. It’s a different team and the girls have to play well and focus on the matter at hand. When we’re back in district and regional playoffs, I’d drop hints every once in a while. But it wasn’t something that we focused on, because I don’t think it’s productive to dwell on the past.

Once we made it [to the final] it was gratifying—and a huge relief for the girls. They should’ve advanced but nothing’s ever guaranteed.

They screwed up the state tournament as well. We had two weeks after the regional games before the state tournament. That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax there.

All year they have the schedule on the website, and the state tournament—districts one week and regionals the next week and then the state tournament the following week, which is supposed to be April 26th. The, all of a sudden, the state tournament is May 10th and 11th—a full three weeks later. So then they put an extra week between districts and the two regional games. And two weeks after the region final was the state tournament, which was ludicrous. I spent a week going crazy about that.

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Photo Courtesy: Winter Park HS Athletics

I had to give up; I didn’t want this to upset me anymore. They moved it so it conflicts with AP and IB [International Baccalaureate], and I teach IB—and they’re not flexible at all.

Two of my girls had exams on that day, and if you don’t take the IB exams—they’re scheduled all over the world on the same day—the next make-up day is in November. So the kids won’t get their IB diploma in July, when they should.

My girls had to decide; were they going to go to the state tournament or take the IB exam so they can get their diplomas?

Why were we putting the kids in this situation when [the FHSAA] could very easily have had this tournament the week before. They wanted to have all of the sports—lacrosse, water polo, flag football and boy’s volleyball—at Boca Raton High School at the same time. They put the kids in an awkward situation.

– Did your girls end up playing?

One girl missed two exams—with IB there’s different parts, so [the final] conflicted with IB biology and psychology. She’s one of our valedictorians and our best player.

I said: Whatever you decide, I’m okay with. We knew this months ago and hopefully were gonna be there, and had talked about it with her parents.

Another girl stayed and took one exam in the morning and came down after that. We’re about three hours away from Boca Raton.

The added stress of it all—where we should have been done two weeks ago—win or lose we’re done and then the kids can focus on their exams. They created this huge conflict which wasn’t necessary.

– Do you see the referee problems in Florida as an example of growing pains or sign of bigger problems?

Last year with our girls and that decision I thought: Holy smokes! We were on TV news and columnists [were writing] about high school water polo. When does that happen? Never. All because of some crazy decision. [It was] more attention than we’d get if it we’d won the state championship.

I don’t think it’s a good look for the sport. What’s going on with water polo? People don’t know what it is to begin with, and then you only hear negative things about it.

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Photo Courtesy:Annie Tworoger, 3rd & Ocean

I think in sports—water polo especially because the referees are so involved in the progress of the game—much more so than any other sport. Coaches understand that there are going to be calls that you don’t agree with, and that’s all part of it. I tell the kids to expect some crazy calls—there’s nothing you can do about it. You have to react accordingly and keep playing—and not complain.

When things happen that determine the outcome—you have a one-goal game and a really obvious error—that makes it tough to swallow.

It varies by situation. Can you rectify it and be fair? Then you should do that. The Ransom vs. Hialeah play—fourth quarter, I believe—it’s still in the middle of the game. There’s plenty of water polo to be played. That’s tough because you could come back anytime. If you look really closely you can always find missed calls. In the NBA they have officials and cameras everywhere. I feel bad for the officials. You can pick out anything and you can’t see everything and make every call correctly.

I spoke with the director [of the FHSAA] who—I don’t know if he’s ever seen a water polo game—I had a very civil conversation with. We’d gone back and forth and I’d ripped into everything they were doing. I didn’t agree with what they did. I understand you made your decision but you need to have some input from the coaches and the sport. And the officials. if we’re all on the same page then it’s going to make everything better.

The more common ground you have, and you get input from everyone, it’s going to make the sport better.