The Games Must Go On! Water Polo Tournaments in Florida, Texas and Utah Fill Age Group Competition Gap

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Clearwater's Long Center is a superb aquatics venue in South Florida. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

A prohibition on play in California due to COVID-19 concerns has water polo clubs from the Golden State searching far and wide for competition. The latest example is the 2020 Texas Challenge Cup, scheduled this weekend at two indoor facilities in the North Texas region of the Lone Star State.

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Photo Courtesy: Olympus Aquatics

This continues a practice of states without coronavirus restrictions against travel and age group play hosting polo tournaments. In Florida, Next Level Water Polo is hosting Battle of the Bay x 3 in the St. Petersburg / Clearwater metropolitan area today and tomorrow. Last weekend, Salt Lake City in Utah welcomed 44 teams to the Salty Splash Classic Water Polo Tournament, a three-day competition organized by Olympus Aquatics Water Polo.

The common thread among all these events is out of state teams traveling considerable distances for competition. The concern: are they doing enough to ensure a zero chance of infection from the novel coronavirus?

North Texas Grows Polo in a Pandemic

Organized by Thunder Water Polo, the two-day Texas Challenge Cup will be held indoors today and tomorrow at the LISD Eastside and Westside Aquatics Centers, features 11 clubs fielding 35 teams in 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U competition for boys and girls.

With clubs traveling to Lewisville from as far away as Oregon—Tualatin Hills Water Polo, which sent an 18U boys team, is located in Beaverton, Oregon—the Challenge Cup is yet another opportunity for polo play at a time when much of America is grappling with the continued ravages of a pandemic that has curtailed activity throughout the country, including sports competition.

According to Kristy Winkler, president of tournament host Thunder Water Polo, the opportunity for many of her clubs’ 100 members to play competitive matches outweighed the risks posed by the coronavirus.

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Photo Courtesy: Thunder Water Polo

“I’m a strong advocate for kids doing sports because I’ve seen too many kids depressed, too many kids losing the ability to be part of their sport,” Winkler said. “If we can keep the kids playing—even if they have to be home from school—at least they have a healthy outlet and a way to get rid of stress [given] the way life is now.”

To prevent any possibility of infection, tournament planners have developed a two-page list of safety protocols, headlined with a stipulation on comprehensive mask wearing at the LISD Center and the blanket statement: “NO Spectators NO Locker Rooms NO Water Fountains.”

Also, no testing; Winkler said her club has been practicing since June without a single incident of COVID-19.

“We’re a very large club; there are some very large clubs in the area and we haven’t had an issue with a case.”

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The LISD Centers offer plenty of room for social distancing, and the timing of competition keeps teams entirely separate before and after competition.

“We’ve scheduled so our teams are playing on the hour and the half-hour,” Winkler said. “The two teams have separate places to warm up, they will immediately go to their benches with their masks on. We don’t switch benches because we don’t switch sides. As soon as the game is over they exit through a separate exit. There’s very little contact.”

After five months of competition where no one in her club has been infected, Winkler is confident her club’s tournament will be both safe and successful. The five visitor from out of state include the aforementioned Tualatin Hills from Oregon; Gold Country out of El Dorado, California; Set from Lake Forest, California; Gold Coast from Ventura, California; and Exeter from Exeter, California.

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LIDS Center in Lewisville, TX. Photo Courtesy: Thunder Water Polo

After years of travel to the Golden State now is—hopefully—a perfect time for Californian clubs to come to Texas for competition.

“We go to California quite a bit with our club, and we also host four or five big tournaments in Texas every year,” Winkler said. “So, we’ve always wanted to have more teams outside Texas come to our tournaments. We’re super excited that they’ll be at our home pool and be able to see what kind of tournament we can put together.”

2020 Texas Challenge Cup Organizers: Shannon Gillespie, Brandon Dion and Donzie Lilly – LISD facility staff. Chris Cullen, Club Director, Kristy Winkler, President, Jerry McBride, Vice President, Jason Ickert, Communications, Julie Heuer, Secretary, Stacey Flanagan, Treasurer, Amy Hull, Apparel – Thunder Water Polo.

Link to live stream for the tournament

St. Pete / Clearwater a destination for polo in the East

The Battle of the Bay x 3 in South Florida will feature 39 teams from 19 clubs, including 15 teams in open men’s and women’s brackets. Clubs from the Washington D.C. region are sending five teams; DC Capitals has entered teams in the 14U, 16U and 18U boys brackets while Navy Aquatics is sending 16U and 18U teams.

Organized by Zak Kappos and Daniela Screnci of Next Level Water Polo in Tampa Bay, age group play will take place in The Long Center, a superb indoor aquatics facility in Clearwater that can comfortably accommodate two courses of competition for 14U, 16U and 18U boys.

Traveling to South Florida for polo has proven inspirational to Head Coach Tom Popp, and members of the Navy Aquatics Club.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to play the sport that we love,” Popp said via text prior to today’s opening of play. “Although some may view this as a time of turmoil, we must always strive to be the best version of ourselves!”

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Photo Courtesy: Olympus Aquatics

He add that “Our youth are reconnecting with themselves, their teammates, and other teams through water polo. We are grateful to our tournament host, Next Level Water Polo for the opportunity to play in a high-level competition in Florida.”

The open age group tournament for men and woman will be held at the North Shore Aquatics Complex in St. Petersburg. This outdoor facility will host 15 local teams for 33 matches over Saturday and Sunday.

As in Southlake, an extensive COVID-19 protocol will be strictly enforced, including temperature checks, masks for all participants, and spectators maintaining social distancing in The Long Center’s spacious second story. Seating will be strictly limited to 100 viewers at a time.

Fastidious planning leads to stunning success in Salt Lake City

No matter how successful the Texas Challenge Cup or the Battle of the Bay tournaments are, they likely will not be able to compete in both size and safety with the Salty Splash Classic Water Polo Tournament held last weekend in Salt Lake City. Unlike Lewisville and Clearwater, which have not required participants to be tested, the requirement in Salt Lake was a double negative test. One taken a week before the competition and the other—a rapid test—on Thursday when teams were checking in for tournament play.

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Photo Courtesy: Olympus Aqautics

According to Shawn Stringham, head coach for Olympus Aquatics Water Polo who was responsible for planning, recruiting and executing The Salty Splash, 44 teams representing 23 clubs descended on Salt Lake City from November 5 – 7 for a tournament with 12U, 14U and 18U competition for boys and girls. According to Stringham, there was no 16U competition because there simply was not enough pool space to satisfy all the demand.

The Salty Splash commandeered five separate facilities to host to hundreds of games, the largest tournament that Olympus Aquatics has ever hosted. Key to that number was eleven 18U boys’ teams and sixteen 18U girls’ teams, the majority of which we not from Utah. Included in that number were the following clubs from all along the California coast: 6-8 Elite, Aetos, Agoura, Bulldog Water Polo, Diablo, La Jolla, Los Alamitos, North Irvine, Praetorian Seaside and Vanguard. In addition, Colorado Water Polo from Aurora, Colorado and the Zilla club from Austin, Texas join the parade of polo teams.

The Salty Splash was extremely popular due to the organizer’s zealous approach to safety. Given the focus on testing—Stringham said that in all 592 athletes, coaches and officials were given a rapid response antibody test which in effect created a bubble for the tournament play. In the results of those the rapid response tests, one coach, one referee and four athletes registered as positive; Stringham said that a subsequent test cleared all six for participation.

“I worked non-stop for six weeks to make sure all the logistics were done leading up to that moment,” the Olympus Aquatics coach said in a phone call Thursday. “I created an event plan that we followed down to the minute—and it worked out.”

That was due to superb planning, including ticketing for each of matches that limited participants to two spectators each.

Stringham, who spearheaded an army of assistants drawn from his club’s parents and coaches, was at turns both proud and gratified that the tournament proceeded without any complications, particularly given that Utah is in the throes of an upswing in coronavirus cases, one so powerful that 24 hours after the conclusion of the Salty Splash, Governor Gary Herbert stopped all high school athletic competition in the state, as the state has become a hotspot for the virus, with infection rates of over 20% for those tested.

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Olympus Pool in Salt Lake City. Photo Courtesy: Olympus Aquatics

To demonstrate that—once again—luck is the residue of design, Stringham pointed out that his excellent tournament got in just under the wire of a sports shutdown in Utah.

“We wrapped up the tournament on Saturday; the Governor calls a press conference at 9 p.m. the following Sunday and [announced] a two-week hold on all sporting events in the state,” he said.

“We were within 24 hours of not being able to play.”

Luckily for clubs all across the country, play does continue—so far safely—in the face of heightened COVID-19 concerns.

2020 Salty Splash Classic Water Polo Tournament Organizers: Heidi Hall, Tournament “Air Traffic Control;” Emily Wardle, Tournament Table Manager; Melissa Stringham – Kaizen Manager; Laurie Johnson, Tournament check in and rapid response COVID testing flow; Patrice Richter, Clinical Officer for Orriant—provided and managed COVID testing; Maddy Drury, Head Referee; Joseph Wardle / Zach Petty / Ethan Thunell,  Event managers for live streaming service for the tournament; Brad Peercy, Site Director at Kearns; James Keddington, Site Director at South Davis; Gary Horton, Site Director at Park City; Ezra Silva, Site Director at Ogden.

Link to archived stream for the tournament

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