McALLEN — The University Interscholastic Committee voted to approve water polo as an sanctioned sport at its legislative council meeting Sunday and Monday in Austin. It will be set to debut as a pilot program in the 2021-22 academic year in order to work out officiating standards and a set of rules.

“I’m ecstatic,” said PSJA ISD director of aquatics Jonathan Landero, who coaches water polo in addition to swimming and diving. “I’m really, really happy that it’s finally an official sport, granted in it’s in a pilot situation but is still very likely to become sanctioned.”

Water polo, which had been pitched to the UIL as a potential new sport many times in the past several years, became the first sport to be added by Texas high school sports’ governing body since 1998, when wrestling was first introduced.

“I know it’s been proposed to the legislative council and, as athletic directors, we knew that it was something that was going to be considered,” McAllen ISD athletic director Paula Gonazlez said. “But throughout the discussion, most of the discussions looked in favor of water polo passing as one of the sports. I think the one thing that’s kind of surprising is that we haven’t added a sport for about 20 years.”

The decision to green light the addition of water polo was thanks in large part to rising levels of popularity of the sport and a spike in the number of would-be supporters.

“The legislative council is a group of 32 school superintendents that are from all regions of the state and cover all conferences,” UIL media coordinator Kate Hector said. “Any addition of activity or change to UIL rules has to go through the legislative council. Water polo was surveyed several times over the years and the superintendents were looking for, the majority of at least, adding one conference and saying they would participate if it was added.”

In the UIL’s most recent survey of 922 school district superintendents, 205 answered that their districts would participate if water polo was sanctioned by the organization. However, 63% of 6A superintendents voiced approval for the adoption of the sport, which is what prompted the UIL to add the sport in a one-league format.

“Like swimming and diving, this will be only one conference for 6A, but 5A schools will be able to participate up, which is how other sports that are similar to this have started in the past,” Hector said. “The last sport that the UIL added was wrestling, which was 20 years ago, but when it first was added as a UIL sport, it had one conference only and that’s the similar set-up we’ll have here to start.”

It’s the beginning of a wild new frontier in Texas high school athletics that many districts in the Rio Grande Valley have already started exploring.

School districts in Harlingen, Los Fresnos and Mission, among other others, have already started water polo programs that play competitively in the spring and throughout the summer. Landero has also fielded a water polo program for PSJA ISD since 2014-15 and it looks like it’s starting to pay dividends.

“It’s a sport that’s going to probably continue to grow in general around the state and we’re lucky to have gotten in it before some other schools and school districts,” he said.

While McAllen ISD hasn’t sponsored a program of its own yet, the local water polo scene is still thriving.

“In McAllen, we have a few intramural water polo teams, so our teams are pretty excited about the opportunity in regards to water polo being a sanctioned sport,” Gonzalez said.

Water polo has been dramatically gaining momentum as a popular sport throughout Texas over the last decade. According to data from the Texas Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association (TISCA) and USA Water Polo, the number of high schools playing water polo increased by 120% from 2010 to 2018 to include more than 165 participating schools.

Landero remains hopeful that growth continues in the RGV, where water polo appears to be catching on quicker than most other areas of the state and feels the UIL’s seal of approval will help further fuel the sport’s regional growth.

With increased participation, that makes us really excited first of all that we’ll be able to play more teams here in the Valley as it continues to grow,” Landero said. “I think a lot of school districts and programs were skeptical that this would actually become a reality, so they didn’t necessarily feel the pressure to participate. But now that they know that it’s a real thing — it’s being backed by the UIL — I feel like now there will be a lot more school districts that start to feel the pressure to participate and to play. I foresee an uptick here in programs here that are going to start playing in the next two years.”

One of the big questions that remains revolves around scheduling.

Since its introduction to the Valley, water polo has always traditionally been played as a spring sport, with a relatively new summer season. UIL, however, approved water polo as a fall sport that will begin in August and end in November to avoid conflicts with a long list of spring sports championships.

This poses a conflict, though, for coaches like Landero and administrators like Gonzalez.

The high school swimming and diving season in Texas begins in the fall with the state championships not scheduled until February. That presents an unavoidable conflict posed by the two sports running concurrently.

“That was one of the surprising things. It’s going to go at the same time that we do swimming, so that will be interesting,” Gonzalez said. “One of the big things is going to be the division of the workouts. How do you go forward with your swimming workout and, then, of course, with your water polo workout?”

Coaches like Landero at PSJA favored the previous spring start time for water polo because it functioned as an opportunity to retain interest in kids participating in swimming and presented new opportunities for other athletes to join both programs on top of functioning as offseason conditioning.

“That’s something that was a little bit of a curveball, but I still see it as a benefit either way,” he said. “Granted, it’s not going to be totally in the offseason like it currently is, but I think even if you push the swim season a little later into the middle of October and started practice at the beginning of October.”

On top of the rising popularity of the sport, one of the other major appeals for water polo locally was the availability of facilities which should facilitate the transition to sponsoring the sport for many local districts.

“Access is always a big problem, especially in bigger areas where poll time is an issue,” Landero said. “The access to facilities is definitely going to propel the participation and in particular, us at PSJA. We have three pools underway, so we’re going to have plenty of time and plenty of opportunities for kids to participate.”

It was a consideration for McAllen ISD as well, which already has multiple site for its aquatics programs between the McAllen Rowe natatorium and an agreement to use city facilities.

But what really sold the district on adding the program to its list of sponsored sports was the bounty of opportunities the addition of a new sport provided for student athletes.

“I think the interest is in the participation because it’s another opportunity to participate and excel in another sport,” Gonzalez said. “It gives them another opportunity as a swimmer. If I’m a swimmer, I can look at all the different strokes, diving and now this is one more thing that our swimmer can look at and also the opportunity to participate in water polo at the college level.”