Schools’ water polo future uncertain

Had the Ontario teachers’ dispute worked out differently, Immaculata High School and Glebe Collegiate might have been set to battle for the Ottawa girls’ water polo championship this April.

Instead, the labour strife locked the two teams, along with four others, out of the National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association league. The cancellation has those involved with the high school girls’ league worried that it might not return at all.

The labour action caused many high school sports teams in Ottawa to turn to parents for support for the extra-curricular activities. But high school girls’ water polo doesn’t enjoy the same wide base of parent support as other sports, says David McClintock, coach of the Nepean High School team.

“I was putting out phone calls to parents, but we couldn’t get enough numbers to run the league by the deadline,” says McClintock. “Anytime you lose a season, it’s not a good sign for that league coming back.”

Though the cost of equipment is low (just a swimsuit), water polo isn’t easy. The game resembles basketball, with floating nets instead of hoops. Players must be good swimmers, as they are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool during the game. Not to mention the sport is full contact, and the referees on the pool deck rarely catch any punches, kicks or bites under the water.

Immaculata and Glebe, two schools that draw students from Centretown, would have been legitimate contenders to be playing for the title this April. Immaculata held a 7-3 win-loss record in the 2012 season, while Glebe went undefeated en route to the championship. Together, the schools had 10 players invited to the all-star game. Lisgar Collegiate didn’t field a team last season.

Despite its small, six-team size, the league provides a valuable route to university varsity teams for many of the girls, according to Alison Hunter, last season’s chief referee.

Hunter also served as an assistant coach to the Carleton University’s women’s water polo team. It’s not unusual to see girls who played in the Ottawa high school league become starters for varsity programs, says Hunter.

“For basketball players, if you didn’t get talked to by university coaches, you wouldn’t even show up to the try-out. Water polo isn’t like that; the teams will accept walk-ons,” says Hunter. “A player who might not see the water in their first year could develop into a starter by graduation.”

“I’m sure our girls are disappointed,” says Harry Zarins, coach of the Immaculata team. “We had a few talented first years last season, and had a pretty favourable season.”

Though his freshmen will miss out on a valuable year of development, Zarins is optimistic the league will return. He acknowledges that it will require the work of all the coaches to get the necessary support.

But for now, the future of the six-team girls’ league remains questionable. The boys’ league folded in 1998, and has yet to return. The only way to prevent the girls program from the same fate is to find someone to take charge of the league, says Hunter.

“Mainstream sport or not, every cause needs a champion,” says Hunter.