PHARR — While three Rio Grande Valley teams were in College Station over the weekend competing in the Texas State 7on7 Championships, a different kind of seven-on-seven was unfolding in the Valley on Thursday.
The game was faster, higher scoring and more physical than its gridiron counterpart. Instead of cleats, turf and goalposts, the scene was dominated by headgear, nets and a whole lot of water.
The Valley’s summer water polo league — the first of its kind — started with a splash as teams from Mission and PSJA school districts met for the first time this season for a pair of matches at the Pharr Aquatic Center.
The league — the brainchild of PSJA Director of Aquatics Jonathan Landero — was created with the intention of serving as an offseason alternative to competitive water polo, a winter sport, and year-long swimming and diving for local high school athletes.
“Most sports have that offseason sport like football has track and volleyball will go on to basketball and so on, as opposed to swimming that’s a very long season and very monotonous,” Landero said.
The summer league, which convenes every Thursday for matches, encompasses coed teams comprised of boys and girls from various high schools within their respective districts. This summer’s participants include squads from Los Fresnos, Mission and PSJA.
“When we first started, I was using it as an offseason sport just to kind of keep the kids playing, but I saw a lot of excitement behind the sport,” Landero said. “I figured that during the summer when there’s not much going on, a lot of kids don’t come out for summer swim but they are coming out for summer water polo, so it’s just a way to keep them active and engaged.”
At the opening game, Landero’s squad, a 17-person fleet from four PSJA schools, squared off against a smaller Mission team led by David Colunga, a biology teacher and swimming and diving coach at Mission High.
But team size wasn’t a good indicator of what was to come: the eight-swimmer unit from Mission went tit-for-tat with its larger, more experienced PSJA team across the pool.
Shots buzzed underneath arms, careened off of crossbars, skipped across the water and tipped off fingertips as the ball continually found its way to the back of the net.
By halftime, after 14 minutes of play, Mission held a 4-3 lead. To some, it was proof that regardless of size, age, gender or ability, anyone can find success in the pool if they’re willing to put in the work: an egalitarian, meritocratic sport in the truest sense.
“You have some swimmers that are super strong swimmers and some average swimmers who are kind of just getting there, and you go the game of water polo and those roles just go out the window,” Colunga said. “You’ve got kids that start to shine in this sport, which gives them a bunch of confidence that translates back into the swim program. That’s a major reason why I’ve been doing this and continue to push for this. You really see a huge difference in their participation as far as swimming and it really all just translates back and forth.”
That narrow advantage didn’t last long. A barrage of second-half goals helped propel the combined PSJA squad to an 8-6 victory. After a shakeup in teams to help balance out the numbers, the Mission team cruised to a 10-6 win in the second and final match.
“In previous years, we have done summer water polo but not in the Valley. We’ve gone out of town to Southlake and Houston and played in some tournaments out there, so they got a chance to see that they can be successful against teams outside of the Valley,” Landero said. “A trip out of the Valley is expensive and we can’t always make those trips. It’s always in our best interest to have teams around the Valley to play so that we can continually get better, grow the popularity and really come together because I think that we can have a super All-Valley team that can go out and compete because most big cities have that to begin with.”
PSJA fielded its first competitive water polo team in 2014 and has experienced a boon in success and popularity in recent years. It’s emblematic of the recent surge in growth for the sport throughout the Rio Grande Valley.
Teams have sprung up in Harlingen and McAllen. Mission added a program three years ago, and Los Fresnos started a team this summer after failing to gin up enough participation to field a full team a year ago.
Popularity soared in Los Fresnos following the visit of a special guest.
“Last year we had water polo gold medalist Brenda Villa. She came down to do a presentation with our kids,” said Jaime Perez, the aquatics director for Los Fresnos CISD. “We saw some highlights from her Olympic tournaments and she brought a few of her medals. … So that got the interest of the kids.”
More than anything, Landero believes, the sport has proven to be a communal, unifying force. It’s brought together coaches, parents and athletes from communities across the Valley.
“I think this sport can be something that can help us transcend that sort of mentality that we shouldn’t work together,” Landero said. “If we do work together and we can prove that together we can go out and be competitive, then maybe that will translate into other sports as well and we can break that glass ceiling that we’ve been hitting so far.
“For example, swimming: you have USA groups where you have surrounding cities that come together with kids from different districts, so you’re practicing with the best that we’ve got down here,” Colunga said. “That’s something you find in club swimming; you don’t find that when you isolate yourself.”
The next daunting hurdle for the sport will be becoming a certified as a sanctioned UIL sport, so it can become officially competitive on a state-wide level.
“Getting school districts to support the sport, whether it be an independent sport or be supported as an offseason sport, it’s going to be essential for administrations to give support to their coaches. For instance, right now UIL is going to send a survey to all the superintendents throughout the state of Texas to see whether they would support it,” Landero said. “I think if they get over 50%, then we have a very favorable chance. The last time they sent it out it was at 47%. We’ve also gotten the TISCA (Texas Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association) behind it, which is pretty new.”
At the time of publication, the UIL offices in Austin had not yet responded to The Monitor’s request for comment.