Players get ‘unique’ experience in Foster water polo tourney

Scott Swanson

As dozens of teenagers splashed in Foster Lake and wrestled for balls during water polo matches along the shore at Lewis Creek Park, Steve Sessa watched contentedly.

Sessa, who coaches the Willamette Valley Water Polo club program in Salem and Albany, organized the tournament that ran July 14-16 and drew 32 teams from all over the West Coast, including British Columbia.

“Overall, the tournament has been great,” Sessa said. “The positive feedback from the out-of-state teams has just been amazing. I just got done talking to Olympic assistant coach Heather Moody, whose team won the gold medal in 2012. She’s here coaching a team. They’re just enjoying the heck out of it.”

Coach Rick Cleland of the Ukiah Dolphins from Northern California said the open water format is a big change for players and made the sport even more interesting.

“I’ve played and watched a lot of water polo from San Diego to Canada and this is pretty unique. Very unique,” he said. “The unpredictability of the plays, the waves. It’s something else the players have to account for.

“Usually these kids are playing in high schools with concrete around, fenced-in areas, indoors.

“The scenery is great. Here the backdrop is beautiful. Watching the skiiers go by.”

Player Mariah Larwood of the Dolphins noted that waves don’t necessarily make the game fun, though one helped her brother score a crucial goal.

“My brother, he likes to go in for the lob shots, and the waves would come and they’d pick you up, right out of the water. So he went up on a wave, made a shot, and the goalie went up as well, and he ended up making this shot against a goalie we hadn’t scored on in a quarter or two. It was good.”

Players and coaches camped at Lewis Creek Park while most of their parents and other entourages filed up Sunnyside Campground, according to Sessa and Brian Carroll, Linn County Parks Department manager.

In addition to the five games each team played, the sold-out event included mini water polo camps and coaches mentoring workshops.

Sessa noted the depth of expertise among the coaches at the tournament.

“In the coaches game, we had three ex-national women’s team members, two men’s national team members and a Canadian national team member playing. It was great. The stands were packed. We had a great time. It’s just been a ball.”

He said he’s decided to limit future tournaments to 32 teams and he needs more docks to create another course for water polo matches.

This tournament had two courses, but players warmed up in open water nearby and games started early and ran late, he said.

“Thirty-two teams has been fun,” he said. “I think 40 teams would be work and we don’t want it to be work. We want it to stay fun. We could start at 9 a.m. The kids could get up, have breakfast and play. We could be done at 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock at the latest.”

Sessa’s Willamette Valley boys team missed the finals by one last-second goal, then won the third-place match over Lake Oswego. California teams dominated most of the brackets.

The 32 teams came from as far away as New Mexico, with a large contingent from the Sacramento and Bay Areas in California.

Sessa said teams went into town to shop and hit local restaurants, adding that more courses would increase the time they had to spend in the community.

Lucas Sheckerd, a player from Orcutt, Calif., located north of Santa Barbara, which won the boys championship, said the experience was entirely new for him.

“I’ve never played in open water,” he said. “It’s a good experience for our team. We were coming from a training camp in Canada and there was a big tournament, so we stopped.

“These were different conditions than we’re used to, so we’ve had to learn to adapt as we play. It was definitely a good experience.”