Newport Beach Water Polo welcomes mayor

NEWPORT BEACH — People probably don't often wear a suit and tie on the pool deck at Newport Harbor High.

But on Wednesday, the Newport Beach Water Polo club was happy to welcome someone who was dressed in just that attire.

Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry and his wife Pamela were the special guests of the club. The mayor posed for a huge club picture with players and coaches on the north-side bleachers, before addressing those players.

"We are so proud of you as a community," Curry said. "On behalf of all of my colleagues on the city council and on behalf of everybody who lives in Newport Beach, I want you to know how proud we are of your accomplishments, and how well you're going to represent the city of Newport Beach in the Junior Olympic [qualifications]. You come from a great tradition. Water polo in Newport Beach and here at Newport Harbor High, that is a great tradition that goes back decades and generations, and you're all a part of that."

For the younger members of Newport Beach Water Polo, the Junior Olympic qualification tournament is indeed fast approaching. It's this weekend in Orange County. Newport Beach has teams in the 10-and-under co-ed division, plus 12-and-under and 14-and-under divisions for both boys and girls.

Among those teams, the top-seeded team is the 14-and-under boys (sixth). Newport Beach Water Polo technical director and head coach Robert Lynn believes the 12-and-under boys deserved a higher spot than their 16th seed. They have beaten several of the teams seeded ahead of them, Lynn said.

But all of that is relative semantics. Lynn said he is very happy with the direction of the Newport Beach Water Polo and Swimming programs. The water polo club began when Lynn became boys' head coach at Newport Harbor High two years ago. It is now pushing 200 total members, said Shelly Rankin, the club's operations director for the younger age groups.

Rankin's role in the club is usually more behind the scenes.

"I say I'm the Oz behind the curtain," she said.

Lately that's become a bigger role, too, specifically on the girls' side. Last year, Rankin said the club was unable to field a 12-and-under girls' team at Junior Olympics, and barely able to field a 14-and-under squad.

Now the girls' side of the club continues to grow. Girls' 14-and-under head coach Keith Leggett said the club has about 35 girls now, between the 12-and-under and 14-and-under teams.

The plan is to have a 16-and-under girls' team within two years as well, Leggett said.

"It's just a feeder system [for high school], much like the boys," Leggett said. "It's interesting, though. The girls in the sport actually have more opportunity collegiately than the male athletes, because of Title IX. There's more women's water polo programs that offer scholarships, and less competition. If we could talk about one thing to discuss with the parents out there, it's that. These kids have an opportunity to have a collegiate athletic experience where the odds are more in their favor."

Leggett, who was a collegiate teammate of Lynn at USC in the late 1980s, also was a member of the Canadian national team. He has two children in the program himself and is one of several coaches in the program with international water polo playing experience. That includes coaches like Pavle Filipovic (Serbia), Marco Palazzo and Stefano Ragosa (Italy) and Ivan Vranjes (Croatia).

Girls' coaches also include 12-and-under coach Tanya Gandy, a four-time national champion at UCLA and former senior national team player, as well as current national team player and Olympic gold medalist Kelly Rulon.

"We have literally the best coaching staff that you can find on a club anywhere in Orange County," Leggett said. "We teach a very European style of water polo, Serbian, Croatian, Italian. It was Croatia and Italy in the [men's] gold-medal game at the Olympics. We have that lineage, and we pass that on to the kids. Proper technique, in a fun way, and very inclusive so everybody is welcome to develop their abilities."

The kids seemed to have fun listening to the mayor pump them up. For them, it promises to be a fun summer of water polo.

"Water polo will be my passion," said Gus Oeding, 10. Gus is a member of the Newport Beach 10-and-under team and the son of U.S. women's national team assistant coach Chris Oeding, who starred at CdM and was a two-time Olympian.

"I thought it was really cool [seeing the mayor speak] because we never get to see him really," Gus Oeding said.

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