Girls' Water Polo: 'Coach B' still a master at work

It is the reaction that might be expected when Bill Barnett is told that he is going to be the subject of a feature story in the newspaper.

The eyebrow of the Newport Harbor High girls' water polo coach raised just slightly.

"What do you want to write about me for?" Barnett asked in a tone that might be mistaken as a growl, except that's really just the way he talks now.

The response is classic Barnett. He has always preferred that his student-athletes receive the credit for the success of his teams.

But Barnett, now 70, has a coaching resume that nobody can match. He has been coaching at Newport Harbor since 1966, and the numbers really speak for themselves.

He won 10 CIF titles as coach of the Sailors boys' program. He has won five more titles since taking the girls' job when it became a CIF sport in 1998. Barnett can add to that number Saturday night, when the Sailors play rival Corona del Mar for the Division 1 title at 6:30 p.m. at Irvine's Woollett Aquatics Center.

Nobody else around Orange County really has credentials like those. Then add in the fact that he was head coach of the Olympic men's water polo team in 1988 and 1992, and the word "legend" starts coming into play.

Former Newport Harbor water polo players like Ross Sinclair (class of 2003), who now plays professionally in Australia, certainly wouldn't argue with that.

"I credit my game and success today to my freshman year where he drilled us non-stop on the most basic fundamental drills," Sinclair said in a tweet. "His teams may not be the most talented, but they clearly are the most fundamentally sound. Any 'Coach B' team will be able to play defense, pass/shoot correctly and that ultimately will give them a chance to win!

"Bottom line, he is the Phil Jackson of water polo. Actually, they should say Phil Jackson is the Bill Barnett of basketball!"

But, once again, Barnett scoffs.

"What is a legend?" he said. "What is the definition of a legend? I don't look at myself as a legend. I look at myself as a good coach, but not a legend. And I'm sure there are people who would disagree with [me being a good coach], too."

What he is at Newport Harbor is an institution. He has coached Olympians like Eric Lindroth, James Bergeson and Kevin Robertson, and the Newport Harbor press defense is renowned in the water polo community.

Barnett, a Laguna Beach resident with his wife of 46 years, Marcia, retired from teaching math at the school about five years ago. Yet in water polo, he is still unquestionably one of the great minds. It will be that way until he retires from coaching, which he said will be in "no more than two" years.

"I enjoy being around the young girls," he said. "They're fun. It keeps me young. They're fun to be around, they're fun to coach. They're bright, and eager to learn ... It's very stimulating to see them develop."

Barnett was known as a disciplinarian during his time leading the boys' program. He's still strict with the girls, yet nearly uniformly they love playing for him.

"Coach Barnett is the best coach in all of Orange County," last year's team captain Presley Pender, who now plays at the University of Michigan, tweeted during Wednesday night's semifinal. "Hands down."

Barnett admitted that he has had to change his style up a bit over the years.

"You've got to sweet-talk the girls, be nice to them," he said. "When I took over the girls' spot, that was the one thing that people thought I would have problems with, that I would treat the girls like I treated the boys."

His body doesn't always cooperate anymore. He has had three back surgeries and one neck surgery in recent years, but he said his back still hurts. He would prefer to stay seated on the bench during games anyway, but he doesn't really have a choice.

"After my last back operation I couldn't walk, so I had to go to a rehab hospital for a while," Barnett said. "I finally got my legs back, but they feel like they're about to collapse any minute. Unfortunately, that limits my physical activity."

But mentally, he is as sharp as ever. His teams are always well-prepared. He makes sure of it, with written scouting reports and video presentations. Look at the way his team struggled against top-seeded Santa Barbara during the season, then look at the way the Sailors dominated Wednesday night's semifinal matchup, 8-5.

Mark Walsh, who has been coaching at Santa Barbara High for 20 years and whose teams have won 13 CIF crowns of their own, gave Barnett a great compliment after the game.

"We know going in, they have the coaching advantage for sure," Walsh said. "I knew that."

What the Sailors don't have this year is a particularly deep team. In the playoffs, Barnett did not use any substitutes in the overtime victory at Laguna Beach in the quarterfinals. The same was true against Santa Barbara in the semifinals, until his hand was forced when a starter fouled out in the fourth quarter.

The Sailors are well-conditioned enough that it hasn't been a problem so far. And now here they are, in a position to defend their Division 1 title.

Newport Harbor started out last year ranked No. 5 in Division 1, and the Sailors started this year ranked No. 4. They have valued the role of the underdog.

And yet, here Barnett's team is again, back at Woollett on a Saturday night in late February.

"I give him pretty much all our credit," said UC Santa Barbara-bound co-captain Carly Christian. "He's taught us how to play as a team, and how to work together in that pool. If it weren't for Coach B, I don't think we would have made it this far, both years.

"He has a lot of trust in us. He knows that we'll play together. In-between quarters, that's when he'll talk to us and get us pumped up. It's pretty much trust. I know that he trusts us to play out there."

Newport Harbor's other senior co-captain, UCLA-bound Elissia Schilling, said she appreciates Barnett's humble nature.

"I think everybody kind of knows in their head that he knows what he's doing," Schilling said. "We're not here to question his coaching ability, because that would be absurd. He's won so many championships, but he doesn't put anything out there. It's all us doing the work in there, and he gives us so much credit, but a lot of people don't give him the credit that I think he deserves. He plays a huge part in [how far] we've come. We wouldn't have gotten to where we are without him."

Water polo has come a long way in Barnett's time at Newport Harbor. He said that when he started, players were allowed five fouls, not three, and the game was officiated much differently.

It has become a faster sport. Yet Barnett's teams have always kept up, always stayed elite.

Asked how he wants people to remember him when he retires from coaching, he doesn't take long to respond.

Again, the answer isn't really about himself at all.

"As somebody that cared about the kids," he said. "A good teacher."

Check and check.

Twitter: @mjszabo

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