By Ryan S. Clark
Anyone thinking high school water polo is just a lot of splashing and chasing a ball should look again.
What lies underneath the surface of this physically demanding spring sport is a fierce subculture of cheap tricks. Elbows are thrown. Feet deliver kicks to the chest. Nails dig into skin.
The rules, much like the pools the games are played in, are choppy. What one referee may deem a foul, another may determine to be part of the game. Even then, there's only so much a referee can see when standing on the deck watching a match that isn't completely visible.
"I've never been in a game where it was totally clean," said Denise Israels, who coaches both the boys and girls teams at Westminster Academy. "I play masters and even the women my age, who are social rather than physical, will grab you, pull you and yank you. Everybody wants to win."
Winning becomes the focus as teams begin district tournaments this week in hope of being crowned a champion at the state tournament April 25-26 at Miami Ransom Everglades.
Physicality is the way the sport has evolved. If a player clearly has possession of the ball, it is fair game for a defender to put his hands on the player, leaving both to wrestle for an advantage. When that player doesn't possess the ball, then the physicality should cease.
That doesn't always happen. At least not right away. Sometimes there are verbal exchanges and physical confrontations.
They start for a variety of reasons. If two players are working for position, one might grab the other's arm a little too hard. Or if they're swimming in the same direction, the person trailing could take a foot to the face.
"People know it can get dirty, but they don't think about how injured someone can get," said St. Andrew's freshman Kate Cassidy. "They think because it is in the water, they think there is more cushion."
Cassidy, who has played since she was in third grade, said she has been kicked, scratched, grabbed, yanked on and bitten over the years.
A few years ago, she watched her older brother take a knee to the head in a match. He was later diagnosed with a concussion.
While discussing what she's seen, Cassidy says she's done a few questionable things to others, among them hooking her arm into another player hoping the referees think she's the one being fouled.
"I don't want to say I gently push off," Cassidy said. "But I push off their backs or their stomachs with my feet or knees."
She said the altercations that lead to the excessively dirty plays are mainly misunderstandings.
There are times when both sides understand what is going on. Boca Raton senior Adam King said he has a personal battle with a local player stemming from numerous club and high school games.
King said there was a game when that player knew he was playing with a pinched shoulder nerve.
"You don't want that other person to be doing well because it is that extra motivation to push harder, to go back-and-forth and then the dirty moves start," King said. "He saw [the pinched nerve] shooting down my right side and he then went and grabbed and pinched the entire thing."
Policing a game where many of its altercations happen in hidden areas are the challenge referees face.
Referee Leo Gonzalez said most of his colleagues can tell within the first three to four minutes how a game is going to be called. He said coaches have an idea of a referee's tendencies. Those coaches will incorporate how physical their players can be depending upon who is overseeing the match.
Gonzalez, who has been a referee for 20 years, said he believed the physicality of a game hinders on the player's skill level. He pointed out how a team featuring players with years of club and high school experience will rely more on skill than physical tactics.
A team assembled with players who don't have the experience, however, is more likely to be physical to compensate for the lack of skill, he said.
"Those players have a lot of energy and not a lot of ideas about what's happening," Gonzalez said. "All they know is physical contact. They're 6-foot-3, 6-4 and 250 pounds. What do you think is going to happen? Not many goals, just a lot of kids fighting."
St. Andrew's girls coach Paul Rave said skill level plays a part, but a player knowing their surroundings also helps.
Rave, who was an assistant at Bucknell and UC-Santa Barbara, said he teaches his players about how to use the correct positioning and space to avoid freak incidents like being kicked in the chest or head.
Accepting the sport's aggressive nature can be difficult.
Westminster senior Daniel Zubero said his first game was a "rude awakening." He recalled another player grabbing his shoulders and wondering if it was a legal move. Zubero said he didn't know what he was doing that first match.
Zubero has learned the rules and has become "less" frustrated when something does happen.
St. Thomas Aquinas coach Michael Goldenberg, who has been involved as a coach, player and referee for 40 years, said water polo is still a beautiful game regardless of its physical nature. He said the sport requires coordination, stamina and strength.
Developing those skills often takes years, he said. He pointed out when a team has players who have attained those particular skills, the game is a smooth experience to watch.
Goldenberg has officiated at various levels, including several international matches. He's had plenty of good, clean matches where nothing has happened.
But even Goldenberg said there are moments when altercations happen.
"There's just an unwritten rule in water polo in every country on every continent, whatever happens in the water, stays in the water," Goldenberg said.
Sports | April 16, 2014 | Page 1C, 6C
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