Water polo a no go

Newport Harbor High boys’ water polo coach Jason Lynch said Thursday that he will be talking about smoke inhalation issues today in his health class at Newport Harbor.

A timely topic, to be sure, in the midst of the Southern California fires.

One thing Lynch won’t be doing, though, is coaching the Sailors. Neither Newport Harbor nor Corona del Mar will be playing in the TruWest Memorial Cup Invitational tournament which begins today in San Jose.

Both of the Back Bay teams were scheduled to play in the tournament, and flew up to Northern California on Thursday in preparation. However, they were then told by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District that game cancellations for Orange County high school teams, due to the Santiago fire, even applied to games played outside the county.

Still, Mission Viejo was given clearance by its own district, and, along with Foothill, is expected to compete today.

“Our kids are coming home,” said Lynch, who was all right with the decision. “They have been breathing the smoke for about four days. It’s possible that if they go up there and start exerting themselves, even though the air up there is clean, that there could be some health issues.”

Corona del Mar Coach Barry O’Dea said 19 of his players are also up in the Bay Area, but plan to stay up there even though they won’t play in the tournament. O’Dea, who like Lynch never made the trip up north, said Sea Kings parents have still decided to turn the trip into a non-school sponsored group weekend and use it as a time for sightseeing and to visit colleges in the area.

Earlier Thursday, Orange County Superintendent of Schools William Habermehl held a conference call with the 15 Orange County high school district superintendents, including Newport-Mesa Unified School District Superintendent Jeffrey Hubbard. It was decided that all Orange County public high school games scheduled through Saturday would be either canceled or postponed.

However, the meaning of that decision appeared to be up for interpretation. According to Ray Gatfield, director of secondary education for the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, district superintendent Steve Fish gave clearance for Mission Viejo High to participate in the TruWest Memorial Cup since the event is out of the county. Lynch and several Newport Harbor team parents said that Foothill High is also being allowed to participate in the tournament.

O’Dea said that Harvard-Westlake and Long Beach Poly are also still in the tournament, leaving only CdM, Newport Harbor and Coronado as Southern California teams that have withdrawn.

“As a coach, I’m disappointed for the boys,” O’Dea said. “It would have been a great tournament. At the same time, we have to do what we’re told.”

Hubbard did not return phone calls seeking comment. However, in a statement left on the district website, he said, in part, that “the cancellation includes all home and away games and activities (including those outside the county), all dances, all festivals, etc. The collective decision by the superintendents was made due to the poor air quality and concern for the health and welfare of students. The process used to come to this conclusion was the same one that was used during the [Sept.] 11, 2001 emergency.”

Laura Boss, director of communications for the district, confirmed the decision.

“Everything has been canceled,” Boss said. “I don’t want to speak on [Mission Viejo and Foothill’s behalf], but all athletic events have been canceled across the board for all 32 of our schools. That includes away games, homecoming, anything at our schools.”

The decision left parents frustrated, including Sailors team parent Harris Sherman.

“It’s ridiculous, in my opinion,” Sherman said. “Habermehl got all 15 superintendents on the phone and got them to agree, no exceptions. My feeling is that they can call a new conference call and make some exceptions ... [The players are] going from one safe area to another safe area.”

Sherman also expressed concern that team parents may have to bite the bullet regarding airfare and hotel charges. In the statement, Hubbard said “... We will examine options for potential reimbursement for parents and students who have suffered a loss as a result, if possible.”

The district’s ruling also didn’t sit well with Bridget Christian, the stepmother of Sailors goalie Myles Christian. She was originally going to make the trip up to San Jose this morning before receiving a phone call from Myles saying the team would have to come back.

“Our boys are safer in San Jose, outside, than they are inside here,” Bridget Christian said. “I’m upset about this. It’s a big deal for them. It’s a shame these decisions are based on knee-jerk reactions.

“I am truly disappointed in the district’s decision,” she added. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

The loss of the tournament, along with not being able to practice all week with the smoke issues locally, have made for a difficult week. Both Newport Harbor, ranked No. 1 in the CIF Southern Section Division I coaches’ poll, and No. 5-ranked CdM are trying to gear up for the CIF playoffs, which begin Nov. 8.

The TruWest Memorial Cup Invitational was to be their last major tournament before the playoffs.

“It’s going to cost us four games, and we haven’t worked out all week,” Lynch said. “It’s a bummer, but that’s how it rolls. You can’t control the fires.”

MATT SZABO may be reached at (714) 966-4614 or by e-mail at matthew.szabo@latimes.com.

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