Water polo gaining support in Rio Grande Valley

Perez Elementary Principal Michael Moreno has an ardent love for water polo and shares his longing to bring the sport to Brownsville as an official league at the Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Perez Elementary Principal Michael Moreno still swims laps regularly for physical fitness, but always with the sport of water polo securely in the back of his mind.

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1980s, Moreno played for UT’s club water polo team, eventually advancing to the A team.

The team was sanctioned by USA Water Polo, represented UT at sanctioned events in Texas, and at the Men’s Senior Water Polo Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“It was a tremendous experience. We flew from Austin to Miami and then down to Fort Lauderdale,” Moreno said. “We got to play teams like the New York Athletic Club, San Diego State University. Of course they killed us, they crushed us, but it was great exposure. … Bucknell, San Diego State, a few other clubs were very, very competitive. Our team was sort of novice. We’re talking about the physicality of the other teams,” he said, adding that water polo, an Olympic sport, is very dominant on the East and West coasts.”

He’s kept in touch with the sport since then, and even in his 50s he still plays in an occasional pickup game.

After principal jobs in San Marcos and the Austin area, Moreno returned to Brownsville in 2001 as the new principal of Villa Nueva Elementary School.

By then, the Brownsville Independent School District had built the Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center, an Olympic-sized, state-of-the-art venue that continues to be among the best high school swimming facilities in the Rio Grande Valley.

It’s the same kind of facility Moreno remembers at UT.

“I was so happy and so impressed with what the district built, so I had all these aspirations that water polo has its chance,” Moreno said, adding that over the years he’s discussed the sport’s potential with aquatic center directors, other swimmers and coaches but nothing concrete ever emerged.

Fast forward to the present day.

The Pharr-San Juan Alamo Independent School District has offered water polo as a high school sport since 2014, at first just playing among themselves, but now competing among other upper-Rio Grande Valley schools and most recently Los Fresnos and Harlingen in the lower Valley.

The PSJA boys and the Los Fresnos girls won the first USA Water Polo Rio Grande Valley high school championships held May 12 at the PSJA Natatorium in Pharr.

PSJA aquatics director Johnathan Landeros said the sport has taken off in recent years.

Teams from the four PSJA high schools have participated in tournaments sponsored by San Antonio-area schools for the past few years, and a regional tournament is held every year in Austin. In 2015, USA Water Polo began providing expertise to the Valley group on how to promote the sport and organize tournaments.

PSJA, Los Fresnos, the two Harlingen High Schools, McAllen High School and Sharyland High School participated in the 2018 RGV championships.

“The more school districts we have playing the better,” Landeros said. “My vision is that it’s a sport we can be successful in. It is rising in popularity and will become a UIL sport within the next four years. … The more school districts we have playing, the popularity rises and we all get better.”

Landeros said while there was some initial resistance to water polo, it has been so successful that the district’s board has given him free reign. PSJA has utilized the sport as an off-season complement to competitive swimming to counteract the monotony of year-round training and burnout.

He said about 40 students are participating and there is enthusiasm, especially among the kids.

“Once the adults come out and see a game and how exciting it is, they get excited, too,” he said.

He characterized water polo as an “aggressive contact sport” and a blend of soccer and basketball played in the water.

PSJA is hosting a summer water polo league this summer, with PSJA, Mission and Los Fresnos participating so far. The first game day is June 13 at 1 p.m. at the PSJA natatorium.

Monica Rosales, administrator of the Margaret Clark Aquatic Center, said no BISD swimming coaches have come to her wanting to add water polo to the schedule at the pool.

“If there’s no fire in someone’s belly to do it, I think it’s a moot question,” she said.

The aquatics center already operates from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, teaching second-graders how to swim, hosting adult wellness swimming programs, and as the home base for competitive swimming practices and swim meets for BISD’s six high schools. Several club swimming teams also practice at the pool.

She said her focus is teaching BISD students and people in the community how to swim.

But Moreno thinks there’s a place for water polo in Brownsville.

“I can guarantee you that we have the kids here in Brownsville that can excel in water polo, just like swimming,” he said. “We need to see how we can get this program into our aquatics center. It’s a positive thing for our kids, our school district and our community.”