AR water polo makes a bigger splash

For the past five years, turnout day for the Auburn Riverside water polo team has been pretty much the same for coach Mike Van Eaton.

For the past five years, turnout day for the Auburn Riverside water polo team has been pretty much the same for coach Mike Van Eaton.

“Usually we have four or five new players,” he said.

However, this season the coach and his returning players got a pleasant surprise on the first day of practice.

“We had 10 freshman come out this year, 14 new guys altogether,” Van Eaton said. “It doubled our team. We usually hover around 14 to 17 players. This year we’ve got 28. It’s amazing.”

Since the inception of the school 13 years ago, Auburn Riverside has fielded a water polo team. According to Van Eaton, the sport has been part of the Auburn School District for even longer.

“It’s been in the district for 20 years,” he said.

But interest in the sport has never been on par with the bigger sports, like football or volleyball.

Part of the reason is that the team is not an official athletic program.

In Auburn, as well as most of the schools in the South Puget Sound, the sport is considered a club program.

“We are high school teams, but we’re clubs,” Van Eaton said. “That means the schools recognize us as varsity teams, but we’re high school clubs.”

Because the team isn’t officially a part of the school’s athletic program, funding can often be a problem.

“Funding is a drawback,” Van Eaton said. “The district is really good about pool time. Right now there are six teams – three swim teams and three water polo teams – all trying to get pool time.

“We don’t get the coaches’ pay that another varsity sport might get,” he said. “This year we get our busing, transportation, but with increased cost. We have to pay for our transportation. Traditionally, Auburn has been really good, but they’ve just started cutting back, just as we’re getting the big numbers. But we’ll see where that goes.”

Currently, the Ravens play in a league with schools from the Tacoma, Puyallup, Gig Harbor and Kent areas.

“There are 12 teams in the league, broken up into the north and the south,” he said.

Although several of the teams in the league enjoy a bit of popularity, including programs at Rogers, Curtis, Wilson andPeninsula high schools, the popularity pales in comparison with programs farther north in Mercer Island and Bellevue.

Part of the disparity is the presence of club teams up north, as well as a different set of rules that allows teams to draw from more than one high school.

“The real drawback just for this area is the lack of feeder programs,” Van Eaton said. “It’s just about getting the kids into it at a younger age. And here it’s one high school, one team,” Van Eaton said.

Currently the teams in the South Puget Sound don’t compete with teams from up north.

“I hope in the future that we can eventually combine,” he said. “But in order to do that they have to comply with the one high school, one team rule. And that’s all for insurance reasons. It’s a different set of insurance than we have.”

And according to Van Eaton, because of the physical nature of the sport, insurance has to factor in.

“Water polo is what I like to call one of the last real contact sports,” he said. “It can be quite aggressive. It’s one of the draws of the game. It’s controlled aggression. They always say that water polo is a good mix of football, basketball, soccer, and then we put it into a pool. So you’re in a medium you’re not used to playing in.”

This season, Van Eaton said that the “Olympic factor” might play a part in the increased turnout for the team.

“Every four years they always say there is an Olympic factor,” Van Eaton said. “I’m not sure if that was a factor, but traditionally swimming and water polo will see an increase in numbers right after the Summer Olympics. I just hope it continues and that it’s more of a trend of kids wanting to get involved in a new sport.”

Van Eaton said he also hopes to see spectators for the sport increase with the number of athletes playing it.

“A lot of people are like, ‘We have water polo?’ “ Van Eaton said. “ ‘Yeah, we do. It’s been around for a long time.’

“We’ve been getting about 50 people at a match. We had a big tournament, and it was packed. Amongst the water polo community, they’ll travel. But it’s about getting the other students to come.

“A lot of them don’t understand water polo at first. It can be a little confusing,” he added. “There are a lot of whistles going on. But once you understand the game, it begins to flow and you start to understand the back and forth. A lot of it is just like basketball.”

For the players on the team, like co-captain Kyle Rogers who has been on the team for four years, the increased turnout bodes well for the future of the program.

“I didn’t think that a lot of kids would want to play, but it’s good because we’ve got subs now,” he said. “It helps us.”

His co-captain Kyle Ridge, also in his fourth year on the team, agreed.

“Usually we just get three or four freshman a year,” Ridge said. “But it will help because it gives us a stronger base.”

“We had a lot of freshman come out, and that’s what builds a good varsity team,” Rogers added. “Having more people helps you practice different. You have more people to work with. And they start younger, and when they’re seniors they will be just as good.”

Currently the team is 3-2 on the season, with narrow loses to Peninsula and Wilson.

And although the pool is packed during practice, Van Eaton said there is always room for more.

“I just tell people to come out and try it,” he said. “You don’t know what it’s like until you’re out there. Come to a practice. We have a junior on the team that was literally a non-swimmer. I thought he’d be at it a week or two and then quit. But he stuck with it and now he’s second string varsity. It’s just about sticking with it. Everyone starts basically at scratch.

“It’s something different and something new, so you should just come out and try it,” he concluded. “It’s such a good mix of everything.”

For more information about Auburn Riverside’s water polo team, contact Van Eaton at