Valley Water Polo Awash in Sea of Ethnic Tension

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Krauss walked the halls of Valley College last week, a black plastic briefcase crammed with papers in one hand.

"I guarantee you've never seen a coach's office like this," Krauss, the school's water polo coach, said with a grin.

Truth in advertising. The affable Krauss, who doubles as chairman of Valley's biology department, works out of a long room filled with, among other things, taxidermy exhibits, water polo equipment and jars of marine specimens.

"There's an elk, a bighorn sheep and a mountain goat up there," said Krauss, pointing to the creatures' stuffed and mounted heads. "And that's a cross between a bobcat and a house cat. It's from Germany."

Asked to describe this season's Valley water polo team in biological terms, Krauss chuckles in a low tone and runs a hand over his floppy blond hair.

"We have the same phylum but different classes, and we're trying to get them to work together," he said.

In his 24th season as coach of the Monarchs (12-7-2), Krauss has tenuous control of a team divided by race, maturity and work ethic. The 51-year old coach says it is one of his better teams, though certainly among the most fragmented.

"We're a team, but we're three or four teams that need to come together as one," two-meter man Armond Abramian said.

Among the players on the Valley roster are seven Armenians, an Iranian goalie, an Italian defender and another of Dutch descent. The team's redshirt players include a Romanian and a Mexican-American.

The Armenian players all hail from Glendale. Krauss, who attended Glendale High in the early 1960s, is able to mine the area for talent since Glendale College does not have a water polo team.

The team's diverse mixture has produced tense moments in and out of the water. One player broke a teammate's nose during a September practice with an intentional swing of his elbow. Another Monarch player lost his cool and sprained his wrist when he punched an opponent. Arguments and inattention are as much a part of workouts as treading water.

"I'm having to work a lot harder on discipline and control than I ever have," Krauss said.

Goalie Serjik Amiryan said players have trouble communicating with each other and are often loath to try.

"Because of the different cultures [the players] don't want to get close to each other, they're not comfortable," said Amiryan, a Hoover High graduate who was born in Iran and lived in Greece for three years before arriving in the United States at age 13.

Despite the disharmony, Valley is fast, strong and currently in second place in the Western State Conference behind Ventura, the No. 2 team in the state. Valley, which recently lost to Ventura by one goal, is not ranked among the state's top 10 teams.

If the Monarchs finish in the WSC's top four, they will qualify for the playoffs for the fifth time in the past 11 years. Postseason play begins the first weekend in November. Based on its talent, Valley should earn a playoff berth. The Monarchs have a pair of dynamite scorers in two-meter men Armond Abramian (49 goals) and Zhilbert Abramyan (53 goals). A solid defense is emerging in front of Amiryan, who made an impressive 18 saves in one match earlier this season.

"Zhilbert and Armond are big for us and for the first couple games we let them take the offense. Now we realize that we have more of a team," said sophomore Danny Sullivan, a former captain at St. Francis High. "I think we have the potential to be the best team in the state, but we get so little done it amazes me."

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Valley's workout inefficiency does not come from a lack of effort on Krauss' part. The veteran coach, who started for the UCLA water polo team in 1965 and '66, struggles daily to refine his players' individual and team skills but has had to adjust his methods.

"Regular drills and laps weren't working, the attention factor wasn't there," Krauss said. "So we've had more scrimmages."

On several occasions, tempers have flared even during such scrimmages.

Sullivan's nose was broken while he was guarding former teammate Edwin Babadjanian during a practice. Babadjanian later was thrown off the team after an unrelated confrontation with an assistant coach.

The problems seem to stem for several issues. One of the most prominent is a perceived rift between the team's Armenian contingent and the other players. The groups' impressions of each other were not helped when several Armenians, including leading scorer Abramyan, skipped practice. Another group of players skipped the next day's practice in protest.

"It's like a mini-racial thing," said Abramyan, adding he has not skipped practice again because he felt bad.

Abramian, the team's most-talented player and one of its most enigmatic, is Armenian but is also good friends with team members of different backgrounds. He is especially close to team captain Jeff Bissell, who is white and a graduate of Agoura High.

"There are the Armenians and the other guys and I'm kind of like stuck in the middle," Abramian said. "In practice, half of them shoot on one side of the pool and half shoot on the other."

Abramian, a former member of the U.S. junior national team, could help by taking on a leadership role. However, he prefers to remain a force during matches and an indifferent participant in practice.

"When the team first started practice, everyone was looking to me to be a leader. . . . but I didn't want that," Abramian said. "I want to be the go-to guy in games but I don't want everything that goes with it, the responsibility."

It is Krauss' responsibility to try to mold Valley's unlikely cast of characters into some sort of cohesive unit, with or without leaders in the pool.

"I found out I had to set down the rules of how to play team water polo and go over them again and again," Krauss said. "We've had lots of team meetings and talked about how to get along. Believe me, I haven't solved that yet."

Players say Krauss earned a measure of respect by dispatching Babadjanian and by not allowing Abramian to play after he missed workouts.

"I think I know more than Bill does about water polo, but he surprised me," Abramian said. "I missed workouts and I didn't expect him to call up and tell me I couldn't play [in matches] but he did. I gained a little respect for him."

After making those comments last week, Abramian missed two workouts last week and did not start in the Monarchs' 16-9 victory Wednesday over Pierce.

While Abramian doubts Krauss' tactical savvy, his friend Bissell is fully behind the coach. His voice takes on an angry tone when he discusses the way some team members pointedly ignore Krauss' instructions.

"I've never seen a coach treated the way Bill's been treated," said the 21-year old Bissell, whose high school coach played for Krauss. "Bill knows a hell of a lot about water polo but he's been blown off by a couple of people and I don't think that's right."

Krauss remains upbeat and says the season's turmoil has not diminished his desire to coach.

"It has been a more-demanding year than others but just because I have a few kids who are giving me trouble doesn't mean I don't love it anymore," he said. "There's a lot of coaches who would have had some of these guys gone right away. That's not my style."

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Bissel believes the Monarchs can overcome their internal divisions and fulfill their potential.

"I see the different groups on our team, but not when we're playing," Bissell said. "Then it's just three white guys and three Armenian guys and we just play together."

Amiryan, the goalie, says the team is improving, both in play and social relations.

"The more we play the more we get into it," he said. "I'm sure that by the end of the year we will have a great team. We will be a united talent."

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