Regional Report: USA Water Polo Junior Olympics Northeast Zone Qualification

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Young Navy player at Northeast Zone Qualifications. Photo Courtesy: Gerry Lindner

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

Last weekend, one of the most important stages of the American youth water polo season was launched. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday 37 teams—ranging from 10U Coed to 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U Boys and Girls, and representing eight clubs from all over the Northeast—descended on the U.S. Naval Academy for the first leg of what all hoped to be a journey to San Jose, California for the Junior Olympics national tournament (July 21 – 29).

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Regional competition resulted in a slight narrowing of the field; only six teams failed to qualify for a possible 36 spots in one of the three levels of play, including the Championship—where the country’s best clubs compete—Classic and Invitational levels. It’s possible that all of these clubs will in fact make it West, as USA Water Polo can re-allocate slots from other regions to give teams from the East a shot at playing polo under the California sun.

Swimming World was on site for Northeast (NEZ) zone qualification action and spoke with select coaches, referees and players to provide a snapshot of a sport on the rise on the Atlantic Coast. 

Kim Tierney, Northeast Zone Chair as well as the Director of Greenwich Aquatics.

– You’ve been involved with the JOs the past decade. How does this year’s JOs stack up with past efforts?

Navy hosted a great qualifier tournament that had the top water polo athletes in our robust zone.

Over the last 10 years, we have really seen the level improve with more year-round programs in our zone.  The hope is to continue to see many of the northeast zone teams place in the top 20 in the country at JOs.

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Greenwich vs. Navy 14U Girls. Photo Courtesy: Gerry Lindner

Ulmis Iordache, Head Coach, Greenwich Aquatics, has been bringing teams to JOs the past 10 years. Last year, his 12U boys captured third-place at the Championship Tournament. This year, Iordache has many more chances to equal or exceed that accomplishment; Greenwich is sending 12 teams to California, the most of any East Coast squad.

– How has the tournament changed since you started bringing teams to JOs back in 2008?

It’s changed for the better: better competition, better officials, better organization. USA Water Polo did a tremendous job with our zone. We got a lot better.

– How quickly can new programs hope to compete in the East?

It’s a tough process in the beginning but in a couple of years they can reach success and qualify for the top division in the Junior Olympics—and hopefully represent the East Coast really well.

– What makes California so special?

At this point, the best competition is in California. If we want to be the best we have to match against the best. There’s a great group of parents here on the East Coast who are willing to sacrifice and travel to California.

There are tournaments coming up in Michigan and Florida that we can go to—and we go sometimes—and they’re getting better as well.

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Lejeune Hall Pool. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

– What’s your goal for this year?

We want to win the close games we’re in, and if we lose, make sure we’re competing. Any place in the top 10 is great. Last year we got a top three and a top seven… anything top 10 is really hard given the competition.

A lot of the California teams are not qualifying to the Championship Division. If you end up in that division you’re playing against the best teams in the country.

Kevin Van Such, Head Coach for the Mavericks from Haverford, PA. Now in its fifth year of existence, Van Such’s club, in its second year at JOs, will send 12U Boys and 18U Boys teams to California

– The importance of JOs for your club?

It’s really good for them to see the higher level of what they can work towards. It’s definitely challenging but it’s good for them to have that exposure, both seeing it and playing against it. To get that experience is invaluable.

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Photo Courtesy: Gerry Lindner

– There are other tournaments closer to home, including HaBa WaBa.

We’re trying different things. This is the fifth year we’re around, so each year we’re trying to build and add to it. As the club grows we just want to get more exposure for our kids and take the next step in growing the club.

We’re keeping our eyes on different opportunities. Next year we’ll see if we want to go in a different direction in addition to this.

– Your club went in 2017. How was that experience?

We had a 16U Boys team. It was a great experience for the kids. Any time you can play a lot of games in a short amount of time and watch a lot of water polo—you can learn so much just watching other teams, because you get that different view. You can talk to the kids about it and they get a better understanding.

On top of that, the amount of games you get is awesome.

Zoli Danko, Head Coach for Mako Polo from Manhattan, NY. In their first appearance at JOs, the Makos did not qualify but do have hopes for an allocation bid for the Invitational bracket.

– What does your club’s appearance at NEZ Qualification say about the growth of polo in New York City?

The sport is growing—the competition is growing. it’s great to be on this stage. Our club is ready to represent New York City with two teams—girls and boys 14U—and were hoping for a good result so that we can take it to an even higher level in California.

More club teams are joining the scene, and everyone realizes the JO team is the next step in order to grow the program. I spoke with the Greenwich coaches and they said that when they first went to the JOs with their teams it was a real game-changer for the parent and players in their club.

Everybody’s trying to take that path—everybody can grow the sport.

– There are other tournaments closer to home, including HaBa WaBa.

Some coaches believe they don’t have to [go to JOs] but I think it’s important to see the full picture about how we stack up [with teams from the West]. Greenwich 14U was seventh last year, so it’s not impossible to compete with Californian teams.

All the teams here show that you can’t compare the quality of play at Junior Olympics and HaBa WaBa.

Dr. Rudy Ruth, Head Coach, Kingfish Water Polo, referee andPennsylvania’s State Commissioner of High School Water Polo.

– How many years have you been involved with JOs?

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Tournament SWAG. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

I first got involved a little over 30 years ago. It’s great. We have teams from all over the Northeast. You get to play competition that you might not normally see. I’ve noticed there’s a lot more opportunity for kids—if they don’t have enough members of their own club, they can join another club so they get to participate.

– Are the Kingfish competing this year?

This year we’re not. We’ve done it so many times but this year we’re doing a training competition trip out in San Diego with Randy Burgess at Coronado Island. He’s wonderful and a great man.

– How hard is it to mobilize players from Pennsylvania to the JOs in California?

It’s always a concern, and everybody’s financials are different. What we do with our home club is, we never turn away a young man or woman if they can’t afford it. We make sure that if they’d like to go they can.

It’s a wonderful experience. I’ve got a lot of good friends—John Abdou, who’s [USA Water Polo’s High-Performance Director] a wonderful friend—and we’d do anything to help support polo in the United States.

– The Mavericks are representing your state in this tournament.

Kevin Van Such and Mike Koziol do a great job of providing an opportunity for kids from different clubs to play. The Mavericks team is made up of kids from five or six different schools. They get them together so there’s enough combined athletes so they can participate.

– Talk about the state of polo in Pennsylvania.

I can speak specifically to our area in Pennsylvania. [The sport] is exploding. We keep adding programs; we have a middle school league now, we have a youth league. And throughout the fall the stands at Wilson [High School] which seat 800, between mom and dad and families, on a Sunday it will be almost full.

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Navy’s Nicholas Polydefkis. Photo Courtesy: Gerry Lindner

Boris Milic, Coach, Naval Academy Aquatics Club, which placed five teams in JOs.

– How many years have you been involved with JOs?

This is my first year at this tournament. I started with Navy this year. It’s an honor to be with a team that has such a strong tradition and great coaches.

It is great to be a host. We got a lot of compliments yesterday on the organization from the parents and volunteers and of course the kids who are involved.

– How does this tournament compare to what you know from Serbia?

It’s fantastic. The crowd and everything else; it’s a great preparation for going to California where you have big pools. Especially for the younger players, it’s their first time they play in a venue like this in front of their peers and their parents.

This is their time to prove themselves and show what you’ve been working on the whole year.

We worked a lot with the 12U team. Even though they lost there was a huge improvement from game-to-game, and the experience is invaluable.

They’re not just becoming good water polo players, they’re becoming great friends. You can see the team jell, see them talking to each other—what they like, what they don’t like.

That’s the whole point of the sport; making sure they’re having fun, they’re enjoying the game, they’re learning—so it’s absolutely a positive experience for everyone.

– Growth of the sport in your region?

Just in the DMV area—District (of Columbia), Maryland and Virginia—we have Capitals, we have Navy, we have so many kids joining. We have other teams coming over from Pennsylvania.

It’s pretty incredible to see how much this sport has grown over the years—especially on the East Coast.

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Navy Water Polo’s NCAA Success. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Julia Wolfson, player for the Brooklyn Girls 14U team, which did not qualify.

– How was your first time competing in the Junior Olympics?

It’s pretty great. I’m a little nervous because we’re up against these teams that are good and you don’t really play often.

It’s really fun because you can get all your anger out—what you’ve been storing up for a long time. Then you just let it all out. And then you’re peaceful.

– You were called on to fill in as a back-up goalie. How was that experience?

I used to be a goalie but it didn’t work out at all. So, I went back to hole “D.”

It was a little worse [to sub in at goalie] because it’s in a position that you’re not used to playing.

– Playing in California…

It’s amazing, to be able to go to different places for your sport. That will be a great experience.

Andrew Lewandowski, Head Coach for the New Haven Hydras; former player at Yale.

– What’s your experience with Junior Olympics?

This is the first time I’ve been to JOs. Our teams play in the Tri-State League up in the Greenwich / Stanford area. I’m a volunteer coach so we probably won’t field teams at JOs. That’s why I’ve got players on other teams for this tournament.

Every year I get about 80 kids playing; we have 40 playing this spring. I’ve got five kids at this tournament: one 18U girl, one 14U girl, one 14U boy and a couple of 12Us—all playing with Chelsea Piers.

– How is it to be at Navy, watching your players compete?

It’s a lot of fun for me because I played here through high school and college. I haven’t been to this pool in two decades. It’s awesome to come back here.

– Your team is a couple of years old, and are indicative of new teams in the region. How do you see polo advancing in the Northeast?

it’s doing well. Personally, there need to be some rule changes made to make the game more attractive to people whose kids don’t play. many of the kids who play for me, their parents played, but in attracting people unfamiliar with the sport, because of the perception that water polo is rough, a lot of parents shy away from it.

They just changed some of the rules that will help clean the game up, and that’s a really good thing.