While participation in the L.A. Watts Summer Games by regional schools appears to have fallen off in recent years, the spirit of the games is alive and well in the heart of Sylmar High girls' volleyball Coach Bob Thomson.
"I think it's great," said Thomson, who has entered Sylmar in the last seven Watts competitions. "The whole atmosphere is great.
"It's a lot like my philosophy where the kids are playing to play, for fun. It's not so much about a win-loss record."
Born out of the chaos and strife of the 1965 Watts riots, the first games were held in 1968 and included 150 athletes.
The idea behind the Watts games was to break down the barriers that divided young people of various ethnic, economic and geographic backgrounds and provide a forum for athletes to interact with one another in a positive context of sports.
In its 31st year, the Watts games feature 13,000 athletes from San Francisco to Calexico competing in 18 sports from Saturday to June 28. It is the largest high school athletic competition in the nation.
Thomson said he appreciates the camaraderie and sportsmanship the games generate among teammates and opponents.
"I think all of that is brought out in the Watts games and I think it sets the tone [for the season]," he said.
Sylmar is among 12 girls' volleyball teams from the region entered in the 60-team tournament.
"One of the keys in the off-season is to get our kids playing time," Thomson said. "We have a lot of kids who can't afford camps. . . . We treat this as a poor man's camp, if you will."
The Watts games provide Sylmar with a good mix of familiar and unfamiliar opponents.
In Sylmar's pool are regional teams Bell-Jeff and Crescenta Valley, Southern Section schools the Spartans rarely get a chance to play. In bracket play, Sylmar could meet rival Poly for the first time since Poly defeated the top-seeded Spartans in four games in the City Section 3-A Division final.
Thomson would welcome a rematch.
"I always look forward to playing Poly," Thomson said. "It's a healthy rivalry."
Sylmar lost only two starters to graduation from a 13-4 team and should contend for its third City title in five seasons.
The lineup returns middle blockers Kassandra Jimenez and Alicia Ramos, and outside hitters Myra Villalobos and Nancy Ariza. Ariza is the only senior.
"We have a lot of depth, so we're hoping to be flexible," Thomson said.
The Spartans demonstrated their flexibility last fall when they were forced to practice in the school's social hall, featuring a low ceiling and non-wood flooring, while a new gymnasium floor was installed.
"To make it to the finals under the circumstances that we did was a real accomplishment for us," Thomson said. "Now this year, they have something to prove. They're hungry."