Greensboro gets a look at an unheralded sport

by Jeff Laughlin

The Atlanta Dynamo and the Baltimore Water Polo Club lined up against the wall for the last moments of suspended rest before the fourth quarter. The Dynamo, favorites to win the first annual South Atlantic Coast Water Polo League Championship Tournament, took control in the third quarter after a sluggish first half. Though they ended up winning big, the team’s first-half struggles frustrated their most vocal players. The Dynamo goalie, Neil Laxpati, looked on vigilantly before the sprint for the ball began the second half and started yelling, “Blue ball! Blue ball!” before their possession began. He knew they needed energy, something every team covets in a threegame day.

Lapaxti spoke of the tournament reverently before the game. “We might win this thing, but they are going to make us work for it. That’s what it’s all about.”

Each quarter of a water polo match starts this way: The teams face each other at opposite ends of the pool until a ref starts them toward a ball that plops near the fastest swimmers. This practice, while not proven to give an advantage to either team, provides the most visible action.

For the rest of the game, above-water action gives only a small percentage of the story.

Holding their tourney on June 8 and 9, the South Atlantic Coast Water Polo League has a North Division including Baltimore, Richmond, Hampton Roads (VA), Navy — who did not participate — and Washington, DC while the Central Division boasts the Dynamo and three North Carolina teams: Charlotte, Triad and Triangle.

As all the teams trickled in and out of the Greensboro Coliseum, the sparse crowd got to see a truly diverse set of teams with players of both sexes and disparate ages. Gray-haired, stocky veterans spoke reverently of the game to younger athletes, fresh from their college teams.

Amongst a majority of the teams, they see little turnover. Charlotte’s core players have played together since the ’90s. Many of the Triad’s players have played together for years. Richmond had Bill Trobaugh, a multi-sport athlete that spoke of his admiration for the sport any chance he got.

“The cool thing about water polo,” Trobaugh said, “is that you can play forever. I’ve been playing for 40 years.”

Trobaugh bikes, swims and runs, and has racked up a number of debilitating injuries in years of athletics.

“Not many of them came from polo. It’s a rough sport, but the wear and tear is pretty minimal. You break a nose or a finger in this sport, but nothing too serious.”

To his point, the sport’s physicality comes from constantly treading water and rising, with a massive “eggbeater kick,” above people to shoot, defend or pass.

The most used offensive strategy is to spread around the perimeter of the goal while one player posts up in the middle — not unlike basketball — and takes a beating while awaiting a chance to take shots from around 5 meters away. From afar, the middle looks untenable; defenders hang over the center swiping and thrashing to deny the ball.

If a defender can fully submerge the ball underwater, the defending team gains possession. If the ball does make it to the center, the defense collapses in a wave of wild, last-ditch efforts at the ball. The center’s unforgiving task often ends in blindly flailing toward the goal looking to create enough space for a shot or a foul. Some players try blind shots that wrap around their bodies. While mostly ineffective, when the blind-shot strategy works it may be the coolest play in the sport. Either way, most teams in the tournament worked the middle with regularity.

The Charlotte Sharks, though, employed a different style.

Charlotte played as a finesse team, and it worked. While centers provided a violent focal point for those in  attendance, the wings — or perimeter players — saw the ball the most. Lobbed passes often flew over defenders’ backs. A perfectly placed crosswater pass can alter the outlook of an entire possession. Charlotte depended on them in most of their games. They would turn defenses around multiple times before creating space for their shots or cuts to the goal.

They dispatched the hometown Triad Water Polo Club on Day 1 without a problem. They mixed long outlet passes with precise ones to cutting players in half-court sets. Each pass hit the target with an ease and flair that scarred the Triad’s undermanned squad.

A 9-2 halftime lead did not satiate the Sharks. They played relentless defense, blocking shots and forcing awkward heaves from the perimeter. They forced Triad to use every second of the 30-second shot clock on nearly every possession. And when they played offense, they got their shots quickly and effectively. When Triad finally broke a quarter-long scoring drought with 5:25 to go in the fourth, they were at the wrong end of a 16-5 loss.

Obviously, Charlotte’s strategy takes a certain amount of touch on each pass — a level of skill the Hampton Roads team did not have time to calculate.

Since their inception in 2009, Hampton Roads Water Polo Club have used a number of active military — mostly Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force — as players. Depending on who is in port before a match, they might have a large or small number of athletes. And those players might not have experience playing the sport. Certainly, this wears on the team’s ability to play together and win.

“It’s very hard for us to build chemistry,” said player Marcio Soza. “It’s why coach Hakim is so important.”

Chris Hakim spent 25 years playing water polo, including his years at Pepperdine University in California, the American hotbed of the sport. He stood vigilantly on the sidelines for their game against the Washington Wet Skins out of DC. His team overmatched, he remained positive with his goalie despite being down 5-1 early. He praised every small, correct movement with swells of pride.

When players did falter, he pointed out mistakes as a veteran of the sport speaking to newcomers should. He simplified the game, made it seem fun.

All this while he was suited up in case of emergency. “It’s a fluid game anyway, so you have to change your style from game to game,” Soza said.

Hakim changed Hampton Roads’ style in the third quarter, sending three of his defenders back to start their offense before they gained possession. With 18 seconds on the shot clock Hakim starting yelling for his players to release if they were not near the goal. Once Washington shot, their goalie or a defender would throw long outlet passes for quick shots. While his strategy maximized possessions and brought his team better opportunities, the team still fell behind 11-1. All the while, Hakim told his team to stay positive.

“Let’s come away with something. Let’s get some good  shots,” he said during a timeout.

At no time during the weekend did his team look frustrated. Even with tired legs and an obvious disadvantage, they kept working the ball into center, releasing early and working on their game. After each contest, Hakim would gather his players and discuss the outcome; reminiscent of little league baseball..

Water polo has appeared in every modern Olympic games. Dominated by European teams, Americans have little to watch for since the sport does not appear on television often enough to produce stars or general interest. Given the chance, this and other leagues could prosper. A few teams had spokesmen like Marcio Soza, and most of the athletes had no problem repping their sport. The difficulty in talking to the athletes actually came in finding out who they were outside of the pool. When asked what they did, most replied with the position they played.

The easiest way to the players’ personalities came through watching them support each other. When frustrated with bad calls (of which there were few) or getting pounded into submission, players smiled in appreciation of being there. They congratulated each other on particularly nice plays in the water and clapped loudly from the benches. A lot of players sat by the water in street clothes to watch their former and future opponents trade goals.

With a very small crowd, the teams were each other’s cheerleaders even more than they were opponents.

“We’re all in this together, in a way,” Bill Trobaugh said.

He cheered on the very Baltimore team he played a few games later on Saturday.

Baltimore, a large, fairly young team, spoke exuberantly about being away from their home city. They spoke about getting barbecue and asked about local bars before their game with Richmond, the most entertaining game of the first day.

From the outset, Richmond’s strategy mirrored Hampton Roads’ strategy. They continually released their best shooters once Baltimore took their shots. While they conceded a couple of rebounds, they maintained a two-goal lead with three breakaway goals in the first half.

At halftime, Richmond led 11-8. Baltimore’s goalie saw the game from an angle the rest of the team could not.

“They are blocking our long shots, so crash the goal,” he said. “Seriously, if we crash the goal, we’ll win.”

Nearby Dynamo players concurred, one remarking on how he hadn’t seen a legit center defender yet in the tournament.

Baltimore benefitted from their halftime strategy session. They used their depth to overpower Richmond early in the  second half. A low-scoring third quarter saw them close the gap to 12-11, and the score remained that way with three minutes to go in the game.

More than most sports, water polo teams can factor penalty shots into their strategy. Any egregious foul within 5 meters of the goal earns a free shot from 5 meters out, like in soccer — the only difference being that water polo sees a lot of penalty shots. In any game I saw, not one team missed a penalty shot. When Richmond hit one of theirs to go up 13-11 with two minutes to play, Baltimore’s bench looked deflated. Even though, they looked like the more aggressive team in the fourth quarter, but Baltimore could not break Richmond’s hold on the lead.

Richmond ran down the clock, but Baltimore got the ball with less than a minute to go. Baltimore scored almost immediately on a rebound, pulling within a goal.

Pressured, Richmond’s final possession looked more like a game of keep away than organized sport. Making passes they normally would not make. Richmond lost the ball with 39 seconds left.

Richmond’s defense had been tough in the middle all game, despite the halftime semantics about crashing the goal. Using their second and final timeout, though, Baltimore planned to work a center shot if they could.

To call the final play a “classic finish” would be overstatement, but the teams executed their plans to the best of their abilities. Richmond denied Baltimore a shot from center by double-teaming any pass near the goal. As a result, Baltimore’s perimeter heave from an angle sailed over the goal, giving Richmond a 13-12 win.

Sunday had a much different feel to it.

Through with the drudgery of a threegame day and fresh from a night in a new city, the teams smiled more. Baltimore and Triad — the only winless teams in the tournament — played each other in the dreaded 8 a.m. game, but both teams looked rambunctious and ready. With one game per team, contests had a little more energy and precision.

The weekend’s championship game would pit Dynamo against Charlotte in a battle of undefeated teams. The inbetween games — third through 6 th place — would involve Triangle and Hampton Roads while Washington played Richmond in a battle of Interstate 95.

A lot of teams straggled in as Triad built a 3-1 lead off a penalty shot from center Rebecca Ur. Ur’s presence in the middle disarmed Baltimore early and often. Using an array of sweep shots and her ability to draw penalties, Ur dominated.

Still, Baltimore remained calm. They stayed close at the half. Down 5-3, they sounded confident in their huddle.

Ready to shed their tough tournament luck, they scored the first two goals of the second half. After Ur scored a relatively easy goal to put Triad up 6-5, goals on a 2-on-2 and a 3-on-2 break got the Baltimore bench up and yelling. They looked invigorated. Triad could only take contested shots all of a sudden. Baltimore’s 4-1 third quarter showed the resolve and grit of a contender, not a team desensitized to close losses.

Triad, however, showed their resolve in the fourth. The first shot of the final quarter pounded off of the post and after a pair of rebound shots, Triad tied the game at 7-7. They scored on a 2-on-1 breakaway after a forced turnover.

Then things got weird. A scoreboard malfunction sent the referees to the benches multiple times to investigate the score. Baltimore gained a goal in the mass confusion. Despite evidence to the contrary, Baltimore led 9-8 with 3:40 to go. Baltimore finally got the break they needed to win a match.

Triad still would not fall. Ur hit two penalty shots, Baltimore countered with another breakaway. With 19 seconds left, the game was 10-10. Triad, with the ball and needing to score, drew the Baltimore goalie out of position with a crosswater pass. On a perimeter shot, something they had all but abandoned, Triad scored with only three seconds left.

Though their dangerous desperation heave characterized their vigor, the final Baltimore shot sailed harmlessly over the goal.

They left winless, but their huddle smiled brightly. “We’re all winners at Biscuitville,” someone shouted as they joined hands.

Triad’s win meant they could boast as both hosts and Sunday winners. That did not change their view toward the other teams. Chris Anthony summed it all up perfectly.

“This was so great. Having all these teams come and work so hard really shows how dedicated we all are,” Anthony said.

He spoke of his own dedication to the sport with candor and humility. “I’m a Greensboro College professor and, yes, I recruit my students. If they are smart, they come to practice early on in our class for brownie points.”

Roberto Gomez, a veteran player, knew how important the tournament turnout was.

“It’s great. We all played so hard,” Gomez said. “I’ve been playing for 30 years. I played in college in Mexico and I have been seeking it out ever since. It’s great to see this area playing like this. You just forget who you are for awhile and just play.”

Gomez’ sentiments echoed most players’. Every participant bears the weight of two jobs — player and ambassador. Whether an elder statesman or a fresh face in the sport, no one shied from telling me how long they had played the sport or just how in love they were with it. If this league has one thing going for it, they have a bunch of confident, outspoken followers. They just happen to play the game as well.

The Richmond squad lost a few of their players, so they had no bench in a lopsided 13-6 loss to the Washington Wetskins. They had won two close contests the day before and left with heads held high. They boast a .500 record in league play this year — placing them firmly in the middle of the Northern Division.

Most teams were present for the championship match since Washington and Richmond played just before, while Hampton Roads and Triangle played after. The Greensboro Aquatic Center felt packed despite looking empty.

The real fans wanted to see this tournament all the way to the end.

Dynamo entered in a typically intimidating fashion.

The team swelled with pride and optimism. They clung to each other as a group — rarely did anyone stray from the walking huddle unless to hit the restroom or stretch — and spoke resiliently about how to beat Charlotte’s pressure.

Both teams came in 3-0, but only one team looked undefeated early.

Dynamo amassed 34 goals in the prior two games, but their defense bore the load early against Charlotte. The Sharks precise passing and interior swimming proved fruitless as the Dynamo prevented them from getting anything resembling a good shot in the first quarter. Diving forward at every chance and wildly flailing to prevent their cross-water passing and fast breaks, the Dynamo rattled Charlotte.

Still, the 2-0 score kept hopes alive. Charlotte rattled the goal cage on two different occasions and though the score swelled to 4-0 Dynamo, a second-quarter shift in momentum began when Charlotte took more shots rather than passing around the perimeter looking for the perfect shot.

That said, by the time Charlotte broke their drought, Dynamo’s advantages were clear. Dynamo employed the better goalie. They distinguished themselves strategically. They were more athletic.

And when luck intervened on a shot from Dynamo’s own goal that sank to end the half, they led 6-1.

Though down big, Charlotte had no intention of cruising through the second half. They found their spark in transition, scoring first in the second half. Dynamo’s massive bench — the team had 18 people total — came back to haunt them when they played their backup goalie against the Shark’s front line. By the end of the period, Charlotte trailed by only three goals and the reinsertion of Dynamo’s “A” squad needed to stop the bleeding.

Now that the teams knew there would be no blowout in the championship, they reacted with rapid-fire shots. With four minutes remaining, Charlotte hit a shot off of an outlet pass to close within two goals, 10-8.

Dynamo made sure Charlotte got no closer. In a flurry of goals, Dynamo took advantage of Charlotte’s tired legs to attack the middle. While they may have lost momentum with their bench, the main squad benefitted from a respite.

When the final horn sounded, as so often happens in sports, the best team won.

The medal ceremony preceded the final game where Triangle thrashed a beleaguered Hampton Roads team 15-6. Washington took their bronze medals in street clothes but, fittingly, Charlotte and Dynamo took theirs while still wet from their game. Dynamo’s gold medals looked less appealing than their smiles, the handshakes and the glory of having won the tournament.

They expected to win. The fans and players expected them to win. And they did.

At least they had to work for it.