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Just Preps : Work Is the Reward : Athletes Toil in Virtual Anonymity in Sports That Are Called Minor Only by Those WhoDon’t Play Them

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“There are no minor sports. I don’t like it when sports are referred to as minor , because the athletes work hard and perform at very high levels. Those sports might not bring in the revenue that some do, but the athletes work as hard as any others -- in many cases harder.”

--RAFER JOHNSON

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He should know. Rafer Johnson excelled in 10 track and field events to win the 1960 Olympic decathlon. None would have merited weekly television coverage on its own.

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He spoke softly at a gathering of Olympic alumni who will be feted at the 1996 Summer Games at Atlanta. It was his honor, he said, to participate with people who simply worked hard to compete and make themselves better.

A lot of high school athletes are similarly honored.

For every Bishop Amat football standout, there are a dozen largely unknown cross-country runners. For every Artesia basketball standout, there are a dozen largely unknown water polo players. A dozen tennis players. A dozen volleyball players.

They work as hard or harder than football or basketball players, but their fate is usually anonymity.

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“You know, I coached football and basketball for a long time before I became involved with cross-country,” says Joe Kelly of Peninsula, which is ranked first in Division I of the CIF Southern Section. “And the kids I have in cross-country work appreciably harder than anyone I ever had in football.”

Jerry Gregory, who coaches girls’ volleyball at Long Beach Wilson, agrees: “I guarantee that our effort is just as taxing as any other sport.”

That sentiment is echoed throughout locker rooms, but usually without bitterness, partly because of tact, partly because many athletes don’t take a lot of time to compare, partly because it wouldn’t do any good.

Taxing? Water polo loyalists point out that, when players are resting, they are still treading water.

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Said Aaron Hawkins, a senior driver at Riverside Poly: “People grow up watching football, so they don’t know a lot about water polo. . . . We work as hard, if not harder, than other sports.”

Said teammate Matt Ferrone: “Once you explain it to people [how hard water polo players work], they usually say ‘wow.’ ”

There is a loyalty to the player’s sport, an understanding that hard work is the common thread and acknowledgment that each game has its own merits.

“We don’t get many athletes ,” said Kelly of Peninsula’s cross-country team. “Most haven’t been stars--certainly not great athletes. We have kids who probably can’t catch a ball very well. Sometimes you play pickup basketball with them and you pass them the ball and they keep dropping it. They can run fast, but their motor skills aren’t always there.”

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Kelly said that of the seven runners he has who score points in cross-country meets, three or four do so purely through hard work.

And no one sees them.

The external rewards are few. In sports such as cross-country, water polo, tennis and volleyball, often the only spectators are family and close friends.

There are no pep rallies, no bands, no cheerleaders and no parking problems.

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There is respect, but it’s usually not widespread. And there is financial difficulty.

In perhaps a concession toward political correctness, so-called minor sports are now non-revenue sports, but even that is often a misperception.

“Sometimes words betray a prejudice toward non-traditional sports,” said Wilson’s Gregory. “We make some money. So we are limited-revenue sports. We’re not non-revenue.

“In reality, very few programs pay for themselves. The number of truly self-sustaining programs is limited.”

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That includes football and basketball.

Still, you see football or basketball on television every weekend. Neighborhood kids play pickup games.

With the beach game, volleyball is growing as a spectator sport, but it still lags far behind.

Other sports surface only at Olympic time.

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Even competitive success is no guarantee of visibility.

In football, if you win, they will come, but in limited-revenue sports, if you win, good for you. And there might not be anything you can do about it.

“I don’t think you can begrudge the popularity of a sport,” Gregory said. “You can’t make people like it. People have to like it on its own merit.

“Girls’ basketball has been as successful as it has because there is a direct correlation between men’s basketball programs and theirs, whereas in volleyball, there is no direct correlation with a revenue sport. Even though it’s played at a high level, I think a lot of people think volleyball is a picnic game.”

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It’s certainly not easy to fund.

All sports have equipment, travel and food costs. Summer competition is needed for a player to improve, and those tournaments or leagues cost money too.

“The candy sales are nonstop, it’s kind of a pain. But we do it because we want to play,” said Pete Caslavka, a goalie on Riverside Poly’s water polo team. The box of candy that joins his books in class is for sale. It’s a common source of revenue on every high school campus.

“It’s kind of unfortunate that water polo is not exactly a bank,” Caslavka said. “We don’t get the donations from the happy booster, writing a check after winning a game. I don’t want to say it’s unfair. When you get into water polo, you kind of figure that people aren’t going to be coming like they do for football.”

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Still, as long players such as Caslavka get respect for hard work and have the same access to training facilities as football and basketball players, they can deal with the anonymity.

Sometimes it even works in their favor.

“Sometimes I think you get some of that second-class citizen stuff, but I don’t want get into that,” said Tom Cox, who coaches tennis at Peninsula. “I think in tennis, despite the caliber of players we have here, they are used to not having big crowds. And sometimes when a big crowd shows up, it can make them nervous.

“There can be some advantages with ‘minor’ sports. When you’re not in the limelight, there’s not as much pressure. There is a lot of pressure in football and basketball.”

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Poly’s water polo success hasn’t been matched by its other fall sports. When a call was made to Poly’s athletic department to reach water polo Coach Dave Almquist, the person who answered said, “Hey, we play a little football out here too, you know.”

A minor detail.


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