AFTER 50 YEARS GOVERNED BY THE TEXAS INTERSCHOLASTIC SWIMMING COACHES ASSOCIATION, WATER POLO WAS ADOPTED AS AN OFFICIAL SPORT BY THE UNIVERSITY INTERSCHOLASTIC LEAGUE BEGINNING THIS FALL.
“It’s something TISCA has wanted,” said Foster coach Kassy Parker, who enters her third season leading the aquatics program. “People have worked really hard to get it [recognized by the] UIL. It’s exciting because it means there’s more growth in the sport. It means more attention, and now younger kids will grow up knowing it’s an option for them. It’s really cool.”
Three years after winning a State Championship, Foster’s girls team placed third at State last season. The boys team finished second in 2019, when the girls won it all.
Foster joins Baytown Sterling, Cypress Creek, Clear Creek, Clear Lake, Humble, St. Agnes Academy and Clear Brook as Greater Houston area teams with girls water polo State Championships. On the boys’ side, Clear Lake, Baytown Sterling, Clear Creek, Cypress Creek, Humble, North Shore, Strake Jesuit and Tomball have State titles. Brazoswood and Bridgeland are also perennial area powers.
Last season, Foster girls earned the highest Houston area finish at State in May (the season will now be played during the fall).
“Obviously we want to win, but every team does,” said senior Lola Trujillo, an all-state, first-team selection last season. “We’re going to try to get everyone on the same page and try our best. Every team is going to do the same and it’s going to be a fight for first place.”
The Foster water polo program’s success was initiated by coach Scott Slay, the man responsible for coaching the Falcon girls to the State title.
Slay, now the head coach at Katy Jordan and the highly-regarded Viper Pigeons club program, built the Foster program from the ground up and was critical in growing the sport in the southwest Houston area.
“It got younger kids on board,” Parker said. “So, we get kids who’ve been playing the sport for a while.”
Senior Dalia Kohn said the Viper Pigeons program has been vital.
“They have a great coach,” Kohn said. “It’s an amazing environment. We’re all trying to build each other up. That club has really helped our school because everyone here joins it, gets better during the summer and when the season starts, we’re all already on the same page.”
Parker was an assistant at Stratford for four years before she was hired to succeed Slay. She currently has 14 girls and 30 boys, mostly sophomores, in the water polo program. She said it’s easier to get boys involved. Girls tend to enjoy the sport once they try it, but it can look intimidating to parents and athletes from the outside.
The majority of athletes in the Foster water polo program come from the swim team but Parker is optimistic she can recruit more from other sports now that it is sanctioned by the UIL. She said swimmers with a background in basketball and/or softball tend to make for good water polo players.
Trujillo had a gymnastics background.
“I got bored, and my sister was always a swimmer,” Trujillo said. “When she got to Foster, Slay got her into water polo. I started swimming and she got me interested. I came to practice and thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool.’
“It’s a lot of different sports combined while having the swimming aspect. Every game is different. With swimming and gymnastics, it’s the same thing every time you compete. With water polo, everyone plays different, teams play differently. You see something new every time and you have to figure out what to do.”
Coaches and athletes think the popularity of a sport said to be “a combination of soccer and rugby in the water” will grow considerably now that the UIL is involved.
“In past years, water polo hasn’t been a big sport,” Kohn said. “No one knows of it, we have to pay for everything, we’re doing everything ourselves. Even our school doesn’t recognize water polo as much as football or basketball, which is understandable, but now that it’s UIL, we’ll get recognized more.
“More stuff will get done. It’ll get more exposure. There will be more media. More people will get interested. More clubs will start. More teams will start. Just this year alone for high school, there’s tons and tons more teams.”
But the UIL’s strongest influence may come in the pockets of participants.
Coaches and players feel the sport will grow in participation now that expenses are being covered. Along with equipment, players were also responsible for their own transportation and paying for hotels to and from games.
Trujillo said players would drop out of the sport because it was too much of a financial burden on families.
“Previous years, we’ve had to pay for everything ourselves,” Trujillo said. “It’s great that the UIL is recognizing us as a sport and we’ll get the funds so it won’t be trouble for us to pay for stuff.”
“A typical water polo game is more physical and aggressive than many people think,” Parker said. “It is a battle of attrition for four quarters. The depths of the pools differ and are unique to each respective facility.”
Foster’s practice pool is 7 ½ feet deep. The Lamar Consolidated ISD natatorium is 12 feet deep.
“If you have never watched water polo before, it’s definitely exciting,” Parker said. “Obviously I’m biased, but I think it’s the world’s most fun sport to play. It’s aggressive but it takes a lot of technical and tactical skill. People are shocked that you’re not standing in the water. You’re treading the whole time. If you come from a basketball background, you’ll recognize similarities, like, ‘Oh, they ran a pick.’”
Foster’s girls are once again one of the favorites to come away with a State Championship this season.
Trujillo and Kohn are offensively and defensively gifted and two of the best players in the Greater Houston area. Junior Clara McKee is a force in the cage. Sophomore Kinley Niles is a precocious talent and mature beyond her years. Sophomore Emma Woods is also a central figure.
“We all have the intention to win,” Kohn said. “Last year, we could’ve won State. We felt it was taken from us. This year, we’re not getting second or third. We’re all coming together and working to get first.”