Last Line of Defense: Goalies Face Up to Tough Task

Times Staff Writer

Coach Keith Nighswonger had a purpose when he went out to watch his Sunny Hills High School frosh-soph water polo team practice early in the season. He was hoping for the inevitable.

As the team was warming up, a few of the freshman players got into the goal and tried to deflect shots. Nighswonger watched and waited.

Most gave up after a couple of shots in the face.

Finally, Mark Magna gave it a try. He blocked a couple of shots and let a few get by him into the goal. Then, a ball caught him square on the nose.

Magna shook his head and gave Nighswonger a little smile. He got hit again and still he stayed in the cage, flailing away at shot attempts.

"It happens every year, you pray for it to happen," Nighswonger said. "Almost every freshman tries to play goalie at least once. Most get hit in the face and get out of there. The one who stays is a goalie."

It's not quite as simple as that, but it's the first test.

Coaches agree that goalie is the most demanding position in water polo. A goalie is the last line of defense and the catalyst for the offense.

The position has changed during the past 10 years. No longer is the tall kid who can't swim fast thrown into the goal and asked to sink or block.

Coaches look for a variety of skills, such as hand-eye coordination, leg strength and quickness. The position also calls for a quick-thinking, although sometimes peculiar, mind.

There is even a camp for goalies, run by North Hollywood Harvard High School Coach Rich Corso, who was the goalie coach for the U.S. national team for eight years.

"It's definitely a specialty position," El Dorado Coach John Bowman said. "If you've got a prospect who's not afraid to get hit with balls traveling 50 m.p.h., then you have a possibility. Hopefully, he's tall with long arms. But you have to start training him early."

Good goalies are rare and can make a good team a great one.

In 1987, Corona del Mar goalie Jim Wagner carried his team to the Southern Section 4-A title. In the semifinal game against top-seeded Sunny Hills, Wagner stopped 15 shots, including two in the final 30 seconds as the Sea Kings won, 5-4.

This season, Andrew Tinseth of Sunny Hills is considered the best goalie in Orange County. The Lancers, who lost several key players to graduation, depend on him to stop almost everything until their offense develops.

"Our kids play much better knowing Andrew is behind them," Nighswonger said. "They can take more chances because they know he's there to save their bacon."

Most coaches take one of their best, if not their best, athlete and begin training him for the position when he's a freshman.

On the first day of practice, Newport Harbor Coach Bill Barnett takes the freshman team and holds a 25-yard race. He tries to talk the winner into becoming a goalie.

Barnett is looking for is the player with the strongest legs, which will enable him to tread water at length and then extend out of the pool to block shots.

"It's very difficult to convince a kid to become a goalie," said Barnett, who also coaches the U.S. national team. "It's like basketball, most kids want to score. You have to tell them that if they become a good goalie, they can pretty much pick what college they want to attend."

Barnett will work with a goalie on anticipating shooting angles and baiting opponents into shooting too quickly.

And, while other players swim endless laps in the pool, the goalies usually are off by themselves doing drills designed to build leg strength. The drills vary to a degree, but they serve the same purpose.

--El Toro Coach Don Stoll has goalies lift chairs over their heads while swimming from one end of the pool to the other.

--Edison Coach Matt Whitmore has them lift 25-gallon bottles of water over their heads while treading water.

--Tustin Coach Tony Choquehuanca also uses water bottles, but he has his goalies spend up to a half-hour just playing catch with the ball, while the rest of the team swims laps.

"We used to tease the field players that we didn't have to do all that swimming, back and forth," said Erik Grove, who played goalie for Tustin last season. "They'd give us a hard time, but actually we worked just as hard. It's tough lifting those bottles and holding them for 45 seconds, then bring it down for 10 seconds, then lift them again, while you're treading water."

Unlike Barnett, some coaches limit the training to stamina. They don't feel qualified to teach technique. Some schools do have goalie coaches, but most goalies are on their own.

"A lot of it is things you can't teach," Choquehuanca said. "You can work on positioning and try to build his confidence, but you don't want to teach any bad habits."

So for technique, there is always the Corso Goal Keeper Academy at Harvard High.

Corso never played goalie. He was a field player at Southern Connecticut State. However, he has spent all of his years as a coach learning the position.

For the last two years, Corso has run what he calls the only goalkeepers school in the world. He has up to 50 kids, from as far away as Illinois and Texas, during the one-week camp.

"We tell them that they're going to be left alone a lot and give them drills they can use," Corso said. "We also tell them they shouldn't be doing the same conditioning as the rest of the team."

Of course, not all of the instruction is on technique.

"One of the first things I learned was to push the weights back on the goal," El Toro goalie Eric Terwilliger said. "That makes the front of the goal tip down and makes it smaller."

A standard practice, according to Corso.

Corso admits he takes the position too seriously at times. But he also said that most coaches in the United States, at all levels, are unqualified to coach goalies.

"A lot of times, goalies are treated different and coached the same as field players," Corso said. "That's on the college level as well as high school. They don't understand the position."

He also said that coaches don't realize how much the position, and game, has changed. Goalies are no longer expected to be just defensive players. They must also control the offense like a point guard does in basketball.

After a shot is missed, a goalie must start the offense with a lead pass. He also can become a shooter, especially in high school where the playing area is only 25 yards.

When Corso was the goalie coach for the national team, he instructed Craig Wilson, who became the premier goalie in the world. Wilson is a great defensive goalie, as he's 6-foot-6 with a wing-span of 6-9.

However, his talents are not limited to defense. His passing skills made the U.S. team even more dangerous.

"We really changed the game in 1980 and '84," Corso said. "Craig's technique as a passer has been copied by everyone. Goalies were looking to get the pass out to start the fast break."

Barnett, who used the technique successfully in the 1988 Olympics, is another who has long believed that the goalie is the key to the offense. He works with them to perfect their outlet passes and coordinate the offense.

"It's primarily a defensive position," Barnett said. "But any team that wants to fast break better have a goalie who can make that long pass."

The offensive-goalie idea has trickled down to the high school level in recent years.

"The goalie has got to direct the play," San Clemente Coach Steve Yancey said. "Not only does he have to make the correct pass, but he has to keep everyone aware of the time left on the shot clock. He also has to be a threat to score himself."

Corso has been less successful in convincing coaches of goalies' sanity. He says the notion that goalies are odd is more folklore than fact.

However, the facts don't exactly support his case. Even Barnett, who agrees with most of Corso's theories, is hard to convince.

"I think they are nuts," he said. "But that's part of being a good goalie. They're outgoing and hyper."

Barnett said a few years ago he had a goalie who didn't like to swim. Barnett requires his water polo players to also join the swim team, which brought the two into conflict.

"The day swim practice started, he showed up to school with his arm in a sling," Barnett said. "He said he dislocated his elbow and couldn't swim. He had it for weeks. One day I ran into his parents and asked how he got injured. They said, 'What?' He made the whole thing up so he wouldn't have to swim."

Almost every coach has an offbeat story about a goalie.

"You want creative people in the goal, someone who can make things happen," Yancey said. "Well, some of the stuff I've seen goalies do has been pretty creative. Besides, if you had a ball hitting you in the face all the time, you'd have a screw loose, too."

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