The Villa Park girls’ water polo team has had five head coaches in the last four seasons, seven if you count the assistants who split duties a year ago.
That would be enough to sink most programs, but it hasn’t stopped the Spartans, who are making their first appearance in a Southern Section championship game today.
Villa Park plays top-seeded Corona del Mar at 5:30 p.m. in the Division II final at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach. Corona del Mar is coached by Aaron Chaney, who was the Spartans’ coach for part of the 2001-02 season.
Coaches have come and gone so often at Villa Park that players often have trouble remembering the chronology.
“I’m always looking back, asking myself, ‘Who did I have coaching me that season?’ ” senior Kathryn Sullivan said.
As a freshman, Sullivan played for John Carcich, who started the girls’ program in 1997 and three years later turned it over to Ryan Bailey, a former All-American at UC Irvine and a 2000 Olympic team member. However, Bailey’s national team commitments pulled him away after one season, so Chaney took over in 2001.
Chaney, a UC Santa Barbara graduate who taught math and coached water polo in Hawaii for 19 years, is also an international referee. His frequent trips to the mainland warranted him relocating closer to the U.S. water polo training base in Los Alamitos.
Chaney coached the Spartans through summer and fall 2001 but took the Corona del Mar job in November. He said coaching a more decorated program was part of the reason for the move.
“That was one-tenth of 10 different things that brought me over,” Chaney said. “I loved coaching those girls. They are a great bunch of kids. I won’t feel bad if Villa Park wins [today].”
Stefan Joly, Peter Moore and Jason Gall shared coaching duties last season, but none was fully committed to the program.
Joey Pacelli, a 1996 Villa Park graduate and two-time All-American at UC Santa Barbara, assisted last season as well, and was asked by the players to take over full time this season.
“We’ve had quite a few [coaches],” said senior Cara Colton, who leads the team with 112 goals. “It’s amazing. I don’t know how I’ve lasted.”
Though Villa Park’s players said the revolving door was distracting, they also credited each coach with teaching them specific skills and philosophies they still use today.
“We’ve done a great job learning things from each coach,” said Sullivan, who leads the team with 69 steals and is third in scoring with 43 goals.
“With Ryan, he got us into real great shape. Chaney knew how to talk to the girls and tell them how to do things, and Joey is fresh got out of college and has a ton of great ideas.”
Many players say the coaching changes have also made them more sensitive to each other’s needs, whether it’s by offering comfort during personally trying times or in their unselfish style of play.
They have rallied around Soria, whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall. “With everything I’ve been through,” Soria said, “my teammates have been like another family.”
They’ve also learned to become more assertive.
“We’ve all realized if we want to get anything done, we have to do it ourselves,” Sullivan said.
The entire starting lineup returned this season for Villa Park (22-9), which was moved down a division after realignment sent the Spartans’ Century League rival, Santa Ana Foothill, to the Sea View League.
The Southern Section then reclassified the Century League from Division I to Division II and the Almont League from Division III to Division I.
After a 5-4 start, Villa Park went 9-3 in January but didn’t hit its stride until the Irvine Southern California Invitational in early February, when it defeated Bell Gardens and Los Alamitos and lost by one goal each to Santa Margarita and Long Beach Wilson.
Sullivan said playing in a lower division hasn’t lessened the excitement of the Spartans’ first championship game appearance.
“For people to say playing in Division II hasn’t been as tough as playing in Division I, that doesn’t affect us,” she said.
Not much, apparently, does.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Girls’ Water Polo
What: Southern Section Championships
Where: Belmont Plaza, 4000 Olympic Plaza, Long Beach
Session I: 10 a.m. -- Division VI: Mira Loma Jurupa Valley (27-3) vs. Rowland Heights (23-5); 11:45 a.m. -- Division III: Temple City (27-3) vs. La Verne Bonita (21-10); 1:45 p.m. -- Division V: Riverside Poly (29-3) vs. Upland (30-2).
Session II: 3:45 p.m. -- Division IV: Santa Barbara (26-4) vs. Lompoc Cabrillo (26-5); 5:30 p.m. -- Division II: Corona del Mar (25-5) vs. Villa Park (22-9).
Session III: 8 p.m. -- Division I: Santa Ana Foothill (29-0) vs. Santa Margarita (21-8).
Fast facts: Because of the sport’s growth, the championships were expanded to six divisions this season. The top-seeded and third-seeded teams are matched in all the divisions except Division V, which features the Nos. 1 and 2 teams. Foothill, Santa Barbara and Corona del Mar won titles last season. Santa Barbara is the only team to advance to the finals every year since the inaugural championships in 1998.
Admission: Sessions I and II are each $7 for adults and $4 for students and children. Session III is $6 for adults and $4 for students and children.