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USA Water Polo pushes back Junior Olympics tournament due to COVID-19 concerns

The Laguna Beach Water Polo 12-and-under girls won the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics title last summer at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center.
(Courtesy of Rob Carver)

USA Water Polo has rescheduled its National Junior Olympics, the largest and most prestigious age-group tournament in the country, due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Session One, which features the 10-, 12- and 14-and-under boys’ and girls’ and mixed divisions, will be played Nov. 21-24 in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was originally scheduled for July 18-21.

Session Two will feature the 16- and 18-and-under boys’ and girls’ divisions. It was originally set for July 23-26 but has been rescheduled for Dec. 27-30 at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center and surrounding pools.

“In reformatting the calendar, our first priority has been the health and safety of players, coaches, officials, club administrators and families,” USA Water Polo CEO Chris Ramsey said in a release. “We also wanted to ensure that we could secure outstanding venues and experienced officials. Finally, we wanted to be sensitive to club and scholastic calendars, since we are all in this together, and we wanted to do our best to fashion a revised program that would meet the needs of our USA Water Polo community.”

The new dates, however, would likely leave local high school female athletes unable to participate. Session Two would land in the middle of the high school girls’ water polo season. CIF Bylaw 600 states that “a student on a high school team becomes ineligible if the student competes in a contest on an ‘outside’ team, in the same sport, during the student’s high school season of sport.”

“In the manner that [USA Water Polo] sent [the schedule] out, it doesn’t work,” CIF State associate executive director Brian Seymour said. “Bylaw 600 ... it’s more than just one section, it’s more than just one exemption. It’s not like you could just have students participate just on those days. There’s so many other issues involved, with club coaches who are also high school coaches. There’s a myriad of issues behind this. In its present form, that’s not going to work.”

Seymour said the CIF State office was open to working with USA Water Polo on finding a possible compromise.

“We contacted them immediately when we saw that, and the ball’s in their court,” he said.

In an email to USA Water Polo members Friday, the organization said that eligibility for athletes in high school competition during the Junior Olympics was to be determined.

Laguna Beach High girls’ water polo coach Ethan Damato said he appreciates the fact that USA Water Polo is trying to maintain a key event for the water polo community, even if it could be tough for the Breakers’ student-athletes to play.

“It doesn’t sound like it’s going to be an easy thing,” Damato said. “I don’t know that many high school coaches, or even girls’ club coaches for that matter, necessarily want the CIF to grant that exemption. I think that makes it rough for some of the coaches and athletes, if they have to be deciding between club and high school during that time of the year.”

The Bill Barnett Holiday Cup, the first major in-season girls’ water polo tournament which the Breakers have won seven straight years, is typically played in late December.

“Unfortunately, in the Southern Section, it’s going to be very difficult for the girls at that time,” Damato said. “But that doesn’t mean [Junior Olympics] can’t be a good event for the other teams. I just think where it gets a little muddy is who’s allowed to play? If you have a national championship but a certain amount [of] girls aren’t allowed to play in it, that’s where things get a little confusing.”

Laguna Beach junior Nicole Struss has won three straight USA Water Polo Junior Olympics national titles, earning MVP honors each time. She helped the Laguna Beach club 14-and-under girls win the title in 2017, and the last two summers she won with SET (Saddleback El Toro) club.

“It would definitely be a bummer [to miss Junior Olympics], but it would just be something you have to accept,” she said. “So many things have been affected by this [coronavirus]. This is just a little thing in the grand scheme of things.”

USA Water Polo also moved the Masters National Championships to Aug. 21-23, with the Hall of Fame Induction luncheon on Aug. 21. The Men’s and Women’s Senior Nationals, which were originally scheduled for July 10-12, have been canceled.

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