It was December 2009, and Aaron Chaney wasn't happy.
The longtime Corona del Mar High girls' water polo coach had just seen his team lose to Back Bay rival Newport Harbor, but he was troubled for other reasons.
For the first time in his nine-year tenure, there was no frosh-soph girls' team at CdM. Numbers were at an all-time low.
"We need to get more girls to come out and play water polo," Chaney told the Daily Pilot at the time. "Newport has a great junior polo program. The best teams in high school are the ones that have the great junior polo programs. In the past, we've had a lot of success. We've had a really strong junior polo program. Our junior polo program has dropped off. And we're working on building it back up. We've lost a lot of girls."
Chaney is now in Hawaii, but first-year Coach Sam Bailey had many of the same concerns when he came into CdM.
On March 8, though, Bailey could smile. He said he had 21 girls out for his new CdM Aquatics girls' age-group program at the Marian Bergeson Aquatics Center.
For the first time in nearly three years, CdM is building toward having competitive girls' club teams in the 10-and-under to 14-and-under age groups. It'll be possible through the nonprofit community program that also includes Bailey's high school girls on the 16U and 18U squads.
"The strengths of the CdM high school team have always been the fact that the high school team has always competed together in the summer, and the age-group participation," Bailey said. "The numbers for girls had been really down. We needed to fill that void of girls in age-group water polo."
The coaching staff includes Bailey and his high school assistant coaches, Brian Mericle and Brittany Fullen, as well as Jon Puffer. But Bailey has also had his high school girls helping out the youngsters. During one recent evening practice, that meant the junior high girls got instruction in the pool from players like CdM senior Maddie Schwartz, junior Alex Musselman and sophomore Cassidy Papa.
"We started off early [two weeks ago] teaching them how to 'eggbeater [a kicking motion that keeps players afloat],' " Schwartz said. "It's just amazing to see their progress from then until now. They're doing the eggbeater, shooting high-corner shots. It's a really rewarding job I guess you could call it. I love it; they're all so sweet.
"Although the numbers were low here, there were still other elite club programs. But I think the coolest thing about them being here, and Sam and Mericle and Brittany being their coaches, is the fact they're already starting to get the CdM tradition that we carry out through high school. It's stuff like the team chemistry and work ethic, just little things like being 15 minutes early to practice. The girls who do decide to play in high school for Corona del Mar, it'll make that transition easier for them."
CdM Aquatics does have newcomers to the sport, but also talented players like Shannon Frome and Maddie Musselman, who are in eighth and seventh grade, respectively, at CdM. With just a handful of girls in the CdM program, they had been playing for Coach Marc Hunt's Anteater Water Polo Club. The club practices at UC Irvine, where Hunt is the men's head coach, but also uses Newport Hills' pool and has one of its recreational swimming coaches, Jesse Briggs, as a program director/senior coach.
Other CdM girls went to play at Newport, where the Newport Water Polo Foundation has a long history of club success. Others just decided to play another sport, Frome said.
"It kind of fell apart," she said. "So we had to go … We thought [playing for CdM Aquatics] would be good because [Bailey] is the high school coach and we'd get to know him better before high school."
Coach Ted Bandaruk, usually known just as "Coach Ted," is a fixture in the community. He has headed of the CdM Water Polo Club for more than two decades. Last year was his 45th year coaching for the neighborhood swim team, Harbor View.
Current CdM girls like junior Pippa Saunders, Papa and fellow sophomore Ally McCormick came through Bandaruk's program. But he said after that current sophomore class went into high school, he was unable to keep fielding girls' teams.
Those teams were coached by Ally's dad, Matt. But Matt McCormick said in the summer of 2008, as Ally was finishing up her seventh grade year, he couldn't continue coaching due to his duties as an attorney.
"The girls wanted to play at [Junior Olympics] that summer, but we weren't able to get a coach," McCormick said. "Initially the girls joined Newport and SoCal, two really high-quality programs. We're so fortunate in the area to have so many quality programs."
But once the girls started leaving CdM Water Polo, it was hard to get them back.
"Once you start losing numbers, it just kind of snowballs," McCormick said.
Bandaruk said he encouraged some girls to go to Anteater, which was opening at about the same time. He said after Bailey became the high school head coach, he and his staff talked to Bailey last fall about getting more girls into CdM Water Polo. Ultimately Bailey said that after talking to both Bandaruk and Hunt, he instead decided to form CdM Aquatics.
"We've gone at it on our own, and the community support has been outstanding," Bailey said. "To go ahead and have 21 kids out in the first day is tremendous … We have four coaches on deck right now, and two or three [high school] athletes in the water with these kids. At the same time, we're playing games and making the practices as fun as possible.
"This is something that will be here past when I'm here, past when these kids are here, past when these parents are here. This is going to be here for the community."
Bandaruk said he doesn't currently see CdM Aquatics as competition to his program. That could change if kids in his boys' program join up with CdM Aquatics. A source close to the situation who requested anonymity said that although CdM Aquatics currently doesn't offer a boys' age-group program, plans are in place for that to happen.
"I know they're looking at the Newport model," Bandaruk said. "I know that's kind of what they have in mind. But sometimes you think if it's not broke, why fix it?
"People just don't realize how much time it takes to run a youth program. For the high school foundation to take it over, they'll see how much time it takes … We'll see how many girls that aren't out now that he's able to get out. We'll see."
Still, Bandaruk said he thinks Bailey is a good coach. He knows something about good coaches. Former CdM head man and current Stanford men's coach John Vargas is his son-in-law.
"Sam's a good guy and a good coach," Bandaruk said. "He knows the game. And what I like about Sam — he's not a yeller, screamer or cusser."
CdM Aquatics is already rapidly growing. This past weekend, it had a 14-and-under girls' team competing in the gold division at the Turbo Orange County Cup in Irvine.
Down the road, Bailey knows it will help increase his high school program's numbers beyond the 26 girls who played last year. For comparison, Bailey said the program had around 40 girls when he was Chaney's assistant from 2003-2005.
The CdM Aquatics coaches and players are both excited. Ella Abbott is just 10, but she has already been playing water polo for two years. She's another player who came over from Anteater.
"It's mostly older girls right now," said Abbott, a utility player. "But it's fun playing with them."
For information about CdM Aquatics, email email@example.com.