A program in transition

The old saying goes that April showers bring May flowers.

The Newport Harbor High aquatics community would love to see it play out that way.

This month the Sailors expect to name their new boys' water polo and swimming coach, following the firing of Jason Lynch on April 8. Girls' golf coach Scott Tarnow, who is on the hiring board, said no interviews have been conducted as of Thursday, but the position is expected to be filled in the next two to three weeks. That's consistent with an email Principal Michael Vossen sent out to Newport aquatics families April 21, saying the goal was to name a new coach by mid-May.

While the new coach's identity is still up in the air, the new aquatic boosters president next year is expected to be Doug Stevens, the father of sophomore center Dan Stevens.

Doug Stevens, currently the aquatics boosters parliamentarian, said he was the only one who volunteered to fill the president position. He hopes he doesn't have his work cut out for him.

Lynch has remained as club coach for the time being, and that initially created tension on the pool deck. Newport water polo players typically play club under the Newport Water Polo Foundation, which is not officially affiliated with the high school. But Stevens said three players – junior Hank Lee and sophomores Preston Lee and Andrew Silvers – stopped playing for the Newport club team over the school's spring break. They went to practice with another top club team, SoCal, Stevens said.

The Lee brothers' father, Rich, declined to comment on the situation. Stevens said he thinks the players will return to play for Newport when a new high school coach is named, the presumption being that the new high school coach will also take over the club program.

That's the way Bill Barnett understands it as well.

"Whenever they hire the new coach, he'll take over the older age-group program," Barnett said. "Jason will work with the younger age group boys and have some administrative responsibilities."

Barnett said he's disappointed with the decision to fire Lynch, but not in a position to comment on the circumstances. He is, however, a great person to comment on the state of the program. After all, the man has been coaching at Newport Harbor for 45 years, longer than his players – or some of their parents – have been alive.

Barnett, now 68, has been the Newport Harbor girls' coach since the girls' program began in 1996. He said he had hip replacement surgery on his right hip in April. He doesn't really talk much about himself, but he's hanging in there.

"Well, I'm walking," he said.

Barnett said he wants to coach for one to four more years, "depending on how much enjoyment I'm having from it." In a time of transition, he could be an important constant for the program. Barnett's been that, ever since he took the boys' position in 1966.

The two-time Olympic men's national team coach led the United States to the silver medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, but his accomplishments on the prep scene have been no less impressive. Barnett's Sailors teams won 10 CIF titles from 1967 through 1984. Seven times, they were runners-up. No current high school coach can really compare to that, but Lynch kept the program considered one of the best in the country, even as other schools – such as Mater Dei and Dos Pueblos – have emerged in the last decade.

The Sailors made it to three CIF finals in Lynch's 10 years and won the 2007 CIF Division I title. In each of the 10 years, they made at least the CIF quarterfinals as well. The program known as "water polo players who swim" hasn't done so bad in the latter area, either, as Newport Harbor captured the Sunset League boys' swimming title three straight years until that reign ended Friday.

Excellence has continued, but ask Barnett what has changed the most over the years and he also mentions the parental influence. He hasn't seen the power struggles as much in the girls' program, but they're there.

"I'd say that's changed," Barnett said. "The parents think they have a lot more leeway in telling the coach what he should or should not do. But I think you see that around all sports, whether it's water polo, basketball, football. The parents think they're entitled to have more power than the coach. It is frustrating, but I understand the parents' point of view. They want what's best for their kids."

Mary Pat Robinson thinks Lynch provided plenty for her son, Michael, when he went through the program before playing at Cal.

"My reaction was one of shock," Robinson, a former Newport Aquatics boosters president, said of Lynch's removal from the position. Robinson currently is the team manager of the USA Water Polo men's youth national team, of which Lynch is the head coach. Her daughter, Jessica, also went through the Newport program and played at Cal.

"I've been around the high school world of water polo, as well as college and national programs," Mary Pat Robinson said. "I have a great deal of respect for the work ethic and character-building that Newport does. When Jason came in, the team was out of control. There were fights in the locker room and no sense of discipline. He took the individuals and created a team in a public school environment, where you don't have the luxury of having kids come to your high school unless they move."

Lynch was fired as coach two months shy of the 10th anniversary of his hiring in June, 2001. Vossen declined to say why Lynch was fired except that a change was necessary in the program. Lynch, who remains a health teacher at the school, has referred all questions to the administration.

He had many people in his corner. But not everyone.

Multiple people who were interviewed for this story declined to comment on the record about Lynch's coaching style and the state of the Newport Harbor boys' aquatics programs.

Others didn't want to see Lynch go.

More than 200 people signed an online petition to bring Lynch back. One of them was LMU-bound senior girls' water polo player Kailyn Obenauer, who said she too was surprised by Lynch's firing. Last summer, she said she helped coach Lynch's daughter in water polo. She said she is well aware that he had a reputation of being tough on his players, but she said that sometimes it's just want the players need. She hopes the program known for its brutal press defense doesn't lose that attribute.

"A lot of people need to understand, we're in CIF Division I," Obenauer said. "We're in the Sunset League. You're not going to be the best by saying, 'Pretty please, will you do this?' To do well, you have to work hard. To work hard, you have to have structure on the pool deck.

"Yeah, this is high school, but this is the hardest high school water polo that you're going to find. I've been through four years of this, and it's not a cakewalk. But you have to ask yourself, do you really love the sport? Everyone who goes to college, they tell me, 'We actually do the same exact thing.' It's not a huge transition."

Newport Harbor wants its transition to be similarly smooth – and hopes that the new coach will stay a while. Corona del Mar struggled for a while to replace John Vargas, who left after the 2001 boys' water polo season to coach at Stanford. When current head man Barry O'Dea was hired in 2005, he was the fourth coach in four years at CdM. He replaced current girls' coach Sam Bailey, when Bailey went to assist Vargas with the Stanford men.

The program's results didn't necessarily suffer during the three-year gap between Vargas and O'Dea. CdM made the Division I finals, quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, in those three seasons. But for the players and the program, having a new coach every season takes its toll. Continuity is key.

"I think on the parental side, if we're unified and supportive, we can help the program get through this," Stevens said. "That'll be one of my goals, to keep the parents focused and truly supportive of the program itself."

One person who won't apply for the job is Ted Newland. Newland, now 83, has already done plenty. The legendary coach started the programs at Newport Harbor and Corona del Mar before a long career at UC Irvine. He said he would still be coaching now, the only problem being "I'm pretty old."

Newland was also known as someone who could be tough or negative with his players, but he said he rarely had problems. Times may have changed.

"I'm sure I was [tough]," Newland said. "Most of the players want a guy who can kick [behind]. The administration didn't necessarily like me, but I got along fine with the players and their parents. If they didn't like what I did, that was too bad. That's just the way I coach, and I've been pretty successful that way."

The Sailors will try to find another successful coach. Stevens said the tension levels are coming down, and the boosters are planning a party on the pool deck when the new coach is announced.

"There's a healthy process going on," Stevens said. "I think there's going to be an increasing effort by the parents to come back together, and move forward for the future."

The future is now for the Sailors. In his matter-of-fact way, Barnett said he thinks it will remain bright.

"What's going to happen is they're going to name a new boys' coach, and we're going to go on from there," Barnett said. "I'm sure they'll find somebody very capable for the boys' program. It's a great spot to coach in."

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