Chuck Hines

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  Water Polo the Y's Way  

Chapter 6: Part II

Girls' Water Polo In
Asheville, North Carolina
1974 - 1980

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Chuck Hines

Chuck Hines

As the autumn months of 1974 arrived, my family life and church activities remained important to me.  My wife Lee and I were in the midst of an eight-year period of teaching Sunday School lessons to a youth group at West Asheville Presbyterian Church that included our daughter Heather and six or seven others her age.  We worked with this same group of youngsters from elementary school through middle school, which is the way I believe most teaching and coaching should be done – with a continuing relationship between the instructor and his/her students.  Of course, this is assuming the instructor is competent and committed.

My professional life at the Asheville YMCA was undergoing a small change, with a new executive director coming on board.  He was Bill Fesperman, who replaced Henry Burts, the fine man who’d hired me five years previously.  Much to the chagrin of everyone in the community, Henry passed away from a sudden and unexpected heart attack at the age of 52.  Bill, an equally outstanding gentleman, had some new ideas about what our Y programming should include.

Down in the pool, I was busy with the usual: maintenance, lifeguarding, learn-to-swim classes, and the youth swim squad which was beginning another YMCA Blue Ridge League season.  I was now coaching the Asheville boys again in both swimming and water polo and working diligently to develop our junior girls water polo team, which I knew had unlimited potential.  I’d had a great co-coach for our water polo program in Burt Peake, Sr., but he was gone … and try as I might, I could find no one else to assist.  Water polo was still an unknown sport for most people, particularly in this part of the country.  So I did what I had to do – I let the varsity girls team slide somewhat over the next six or seven months.  We kept on practicing, but at a rather relaxed pace, and I didn’t schedule any games or trips.  Which was okay, as we were all broke after our “western adventure.”  This enabled me to go back and focus my attention on the younger swimmers and poloists in our program.

The swimmers were continuing to perform admirably, winning most of their dual meets.  While training almost exclusively for water polo, our older girls – Connie Hartman individually and the 200-yard medley and 200-yard freestyle relay quartet comprised of Connie, Karen Hartman, Margaret Boyd, and Laura Pless – had been ranked in the YMCA’s ‘top 10’ nationally.  We now had one other girl, 14-year-old Patrice Malone in the 100-yard backstroke, and two younger boys who were nationally ranked, along with our 9-and-10 boys relay foursome.  One day I awakened to find a letter to the editor of the Citizen-Times written by one of our swim team girls.  She said, “There is a man in our community who goes far beyond the demands of his job to serve youth.  This man is Chuck Hines who coaches the swim team at the YMCA.  The team is made up of approximately 40 members from ages eight to 18.

“In addition to coaching the regular drills and practices, Mr. Hines talks with the youngsters about values and things that help them become not only better swimmers but also better persons.  Before each meet, he spends hours studying time sheets.  He matches up individuals with similar times so each competitor has a chance to bring home at least one ribbon.  More hours each week go into preparation of a newsletter, keeping parents informed and thanking them for their support.  The list could go on and on.  For his concern and devotion to youth, Chuck Hines deserves a heart-felt thank you.”

Wasn’t that nice?  It was written and submitted to the paper without my having any knowledge of it by Roxanne Smith, a 14-year-old, perhaps with her parents’ assistance…?   She was a swimmer, not a water polo player, which was all right, because our up-and-coming junior water polo girls already were very good.  They were strong, swift swimmers who’d been winning races for us as 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds.  I then introduced them to water polo, and in the spring of 1974, I’d squeezed six of ‘em , now ages 13 and 14, into my Buick and driven to a small five-per-side weekend tournament at Lima, Ohio.  We were the youngest team of the four in the girls’ competition held in the Lima YMCA pool, but we defeated the three other entries with ease.  This was an auspicious start for our young ladies.

In November of 1974, although we were now in the midst of our indoor swim season, we hosted the AAU Junior Women’s Indoor Championships (yes, again) at the UNCA pool.  This would be a good test for our 13- and 14-year-olds, as the other teams would all have players as old as 16, 17, 18.  Three teams came from Pennsylvania – Mercersburg Academy and Philadelphia Aquatic Club ‘A’ and ‘B’ – and one from the Greater Toledo Swim Club of Ohio, coached by Pete Malone, and one from … I think it was Tennessee.  We had Jim Schwartz from Pennsylvania and Steve Hellmann from Kentucky and our own Rob Baker as referees.  After using their superior water polo skills to demolish the much faster Toledo team in the opener, our Asheville girls also led at halftime against Mercersburg, whose lineup included a couple of national prep school swimming champions.  But Mercersburg rallied in the second half and won by two goals, eventually taking top honors in this tournament.

The Y girls bounced back and beat the Tennessee team and Philly ‘A’ and ‘B’ to finish as runners-up.  Our starting lineup included Kathy Oates as goalie; Becky Davis, Tricia Derrough, and Diane Johnson as guards; and Barbara Anderson, DeeDee Dave, and Mary Ann Myers as forwards.  We had three young substitutes, Libby Anderson and Ann Hargrove and Rachel Woodbery, who struggled whenever they were in the water.  But that was all right.  They showed steady improvement throughout the tourney, which was important as we looked forward to these youngsters playing in the next Junior Olympic Championships, now only eight months away.

*****

It’s not the intent of this book to get into the tactics and strategy of water polo, but for what it’s worth, here’s a brief synopsis of my philosophy for the boys and girls teams I was coaching in the 1960s and 1970s, when the rules were different from nowadays.  It began with an emphasis on defense.  I was always looking for a good goalie, and we had some excellent ones at Minneapolis-St. Paul, Des Moines, Canton, and Asheville.  Two of the boys and three of the girls I coached over the years were All-Americans at the goalie position, and several others were all-tournament selections.  Then we needed a good, aggressive hole guard, or defender.  This was a vitally important and often overlooked position.  I called our mid-pool players the “bandits.”  Their job was to put on a full-pool press (most of the time) and keep the opposing team bottled up in the back court without ever fouling.  We wanted to steal the ball or intercept passes, if possible.  Hence the name “bandits.”

Whenever we stole the ball or intercepted a pass, we initiated a fast break and tried to get a score by taking a high-percentage shot from the opposing team’s four-yard line.  If this failed, we set up our front court offense, feeding the ball into our hole forward, who was situated in front of the opposing team’s cage, usually near the two-yard line.  There wasn’t nearly as much wrestling in the water in those days, and our hole forwards were able to score consistently.  When they were held in check, which didn’t happen often, we tried a driving game, with short sprints toward the opposing cage and quick shots.  There was no shot clock, as at present, so we were not rushed when setting up our offense.

In YMCA competition, this was about all it took to win.  For our varsity girls in Asheville who were playing in national AAU competition against the outstanding women’s teams from California and Florida, we needed a few more ploys.  We learned to do a good zone defense, and we practiced our 6-on-5 offense and 5-against-6 defense endlessly.  This is how we concluded most of our practices at the UNCA pool, except for some short sprints.

We were allowed four substitutes, and I never hesitated to use them.  For one thing, at the YMCA, everyone plays.  For another, they were reasonably good, at least by the time they reached the varsity.  But on too many of our trips, we didn’t have any subs, usually just one or two, which caused problems from time to time.

We wanted to play against the best opponents we could find, whether it was in AAU or Y competition or, for the Asheville boys, against various collegiate men’s teams.  Our objective was “to play for the championship and in a manner that demonstrates good sportsmanship.”

At that time, the YMCA of the USA was promoting four Values.  They were caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility.  In the world of water polo, I would translate them as follows:

Tactics and strategy are important in water polo, as in all competitive sports, and we want to do our very best to win.  That’s why we keep score.  That’s why we present medals.  That’s why we honor our heroes.  But we must not forget that there are underlying Values that must also be taught.  These Values are what will remain in the lives of the athletes long after the scores of the games are forgotten.  As the famous sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote: “When that Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.”  I believe it, and I tried to teach it.

*****

There were two tournaments that we attended in the spring of 1975.  One was at Lower Moreland High School in the Philadelphia area.  My friend Paul Barren was hosting an invitational tourney that included four boys teams and four girls teams.  I decided to take our junior girls, with whom I’d been working the most.  We flew into the Philly airport and were greeted by the families of the Lower Moreland female players, with whom our girls would be staying.  I stayed with Coach Paul and his wife, who were congenial and gracious hosts.  Our girls, despite being the youngest entry, played three games against Eastern teams and won them all in the seven-per-side competition.  Two of the games were blowouts; the last one was much closer.  Mary Ann Myers and DeeDee Dave led us offensively, while Tricia Derrough and Kathy Oates were our defensive standouts.  Along with the games, there was ample time for socializing and sight-seeing.

In addition to that event, Mercersburg Academy, coached by Pat Barry, was hosting the 1975 AAU Junior Women’s Indoors about four weeks later.  I suggested to Pat that he open it up and add an international category.  With my devious mind, I was trying to accomplish two things.  First, I wanted to expand women’s water polo nationally and internationally.  Second, I wanted to give our “older” varsity players a reason to keep on practicing and competing.  They’d won the Junior Olympics and Junior Nationals, and they’d done well at the Senior Indoors and Senior Outdoors.  They’d traveled to Florida, some of them twice, and enjoyed a tremendous trip to California and Hawaii.  What was left?  Hey, how about going international?

Even with Pat’s consent and my prodding to get teams entered at Mercersburg, we ended up with a small field – four in the Junior Indoors and four in what we were calling the North American Women’s Invitational.  But one team came from California and two from Canada, so that made it worthwhile.  I reorganized our varsity girls, who, after six or seven months of mostly relaxing and not playing any games at all, practiced diligently during April and early May.  They were eager to get goin’ again.  Still, we had only seven who could make the trip northward to Mercersburg.  They were seven good ones – Margaret Boyd, Molly Griffin, Page Pless, Melisa Crawford, Karen Hartman, Connie Hartman, and Elizabeth Jeter.  None of the other varsity team members could go.  So I asked Tricia Derrough from our junior team to go along and serve as our lone sub.  With the exception of two trips we took over the years, we were always limited in the number of players who were available to go, so I guess this time would be nothin’ new.

The opening game pitted Asheville against Commerce, California, a strong squad that had been playing women’s and girls’ water polo since the ‘60s and was coached by Olympic swimmer Sandy Nitta.   After this matchup, we would be playing the other three teams in the North American competition, while Commerce would be playing the other three teams in the Junior Women’s category.  I’m not sure why Pat Barry scheduled it this way.  It caught us by surprise.  As usual, I wanted our girls to have an educational experience, so we drove over to Gettysburg National Park and spent a morning there and even took time to eat a leisurely lunch, arriving at the eight-lane, 25-yard Mercersburg pool barely in time for our afternoon game with Commerce.

We weren’t ready to play.  Commerce’s excellent hole forward pumped in a score within the first minute, and the Californians continued to lead, 1-to-0, as the quarter ended.  I gave our girls a little pep talk, and we scored three times in the second stanza before giving up another goal.  At halftime, Asheville was in front, 3-to-2.  We put it away in the third frame, scoring three more.  As the game wound down, Commerce added a final tally in the last minute, but it was too late.  Asheville was the winner, 6-to-3.

Commerce went on to take first place in the Junior Indoors, winning three in a row, and we went on to take top honors in the North American category, also winning three straight.  The last one was against Hamilton of Ontario, Canada.  They were a respectable team with a good coach, mostly collegians with a couple of high school students, and we expected a bitter battle.  As it turned out, our girls, despite being short-handed with just a single substitute, played probably their best game to that date, overwhelming the Canadians, 15-to-5.  It was a match in which almost everything we did was successful.

Mercersburg Academy sent out a press release at the end of the tournament, and it was picked up by the Citizen-Times: “The Asheville YMCA women’s water polo team concluded play in the North American Invitational held here over the weekend with its fourth consecutive win.  In the three-day competition, Connie Hartman led Asheville with 17 goals.  Elizabeth Jeter added 15, Molly Griffin 10, Page Pless eight, Karen Hartman five, and Melisa Crawford and Tricia Derrough four each.  Goalie Margaret Boyd of Asheville held opponents to just 12 scores in the four matches.  Asheville’s next competition comes in July when the team will host the AAU Senior Women’s Outdoor Championships.”

Author’s Note:  Going to Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania was sort of a homecoming for me.  I’d grown up in Rochester, Minnesota, but had attended Mercersburg when I was in the ninth and tenth grades.  It was, and is, one of the most prestigious prep or private schools in the country.  I had a very good experience while at Mercersburg in 1948 and 1949.  I was on the swimming squad, of which the star performer was Dick Cleveland of Hawaii.  He went on to become a U.S. record-holder and Pan-Am Games gold medalist in the 100-meter freestyle.  For various reasons, I returned home and attended Rochester High School when I was a junior and senior, swimming for Coach Evar Silvernagle and graduating in 1951.  Over the years, I remained in touch with Leonard Plantz, Mercersburg’s athletic director and a fine gentleman, and it was through him and swim coach Pat Barry that I convinced the school to become involved with water polo.

As usual, there was no time to rest.  We were hosting the Senior Outdoors for the second time in three years.  No other club in the country volunteered to do it.  So it was back to the UNCA indoor pool for the Outdoor Championships.  Oh, well.  The California clubs didn’t want to come – Commerce had just competed at Mercersburg Academy, and previously Fresno had come to Asheville for the Senior Outdoors and Anaheim to Cincinnati for the Senior Indoors and Cerritos to Miami for the JOs.  Cross-country traveling wasn’t done as easily in the 1970s as it is nowadays, so a return trip “back East” for the Californians wasn’t in the offing.  Besides, the Eastern/Southern teams were good, maybe too good, and our Eastern referees, the Californians claimed, were “biased,” a typical complaint in the sport of water polo.

Hmmm.  The three referees we brought in to do the AAU Senior Women’s Championships and the other major tournament we hosted were Don Atwood, Paul Barren, and Wally Lundt.  Let me tell you about each one, and you can judge their ability and reliability.

While California can rightfully claim its long-time leadership in water polo, there are others around the country like Wally, Paul, and Don who’ve played key roles in the sport, without whom we wouldn’t be where we are today.  And where are we today?  As I write this, the U.S. men’s and women’s national water polo teams have recently returned from Beijing, China, where both earned SILVER medals at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.  No other country medaled in both categories.  Two American men and one woman were named to the 14-member all-world team.  Only Hungary, where water polo is the National sport, did better, with four all-world selections.  If we’re the best, or close to it, it’s because thousands of men and women from coast to coast have contributed to the growth of water polo in the U.S. over the past 100 years.  This includes more than a few from the YMCA.

*****

As we prepared to host the 1975 AAU Senior Women’s Outdoors, even the Charlotte Observer newspaper gave us some ink.  The article, written by Peter Barnes, was about our all-around ace, and it went like this: “Technicalities have a way of stepping in front of Connie Hartman.  And Connie has a way of shrugging them off.

“At the age of 10, the young Asheville aquatic star was all set to compete in the National Junior Olympic Swimming Championships, but three weeks before the meet, officials decided to delete the 10-and-under age group from the schedule.  Dry-docked for two years, she came back at age 12 to earn a berth in the competition and then earned trips again as a 13- and 14-year-old.  Now, at the age of 17, she nears All-America status for the fourth year in a row as a water polo player.  Connie should be looking ahead to the 1976 Olympic Games, but Olympic officials have never recognized women’s water polo as an Olympic sport although the men have been competing since 1900.

“Denied the international trips that are usually enjoyed by athletes with her talent, the 5-4, 120-pound teenager has just redoubled her efforts to make her Asheville YMCA team one of the nation’s very best.  She says she’s quit worrying about what she can’t control, such as making the Olympics, and is trying to do the best she can.  She began playing water polo while she was still training regularly for swimming, and in both 1971 and 1972, she flew directly from the Junior Olympic Swimming Championships to the Junior Olympic Water Polo Championships.  In 1972, she was Asheville’s top defensive player when the YMCA team won the JO title.

“That was the first year she earned Junior All-American.  The next year, Asheville placed second at the Junior Olympics, and Connie was named the event’s Most Valuable Player.  And last year, after the Y team’s western trip to compete in California and Hawaii, she was selected as a Senior All-American.  

“Graduating from Asheville High School this past spring, at 17, she’ll be attending the College of Charleston in South Carolina on an academic scholarship, having been a member of the National Honor Society while at Asheville High.  She turned down athletic scholarships from all over the country, saying she wants to keep playing with the Asheville YMCA’s water polo team which, under Coach Chuck Hines, has made rapid improvement in the sport since 1969.  Hines, who developed championship teams in Iowa and Illinois before taking the job as director of aquatics at the Asheville YMCA, says Connie’s swimming background gives her the edge that makes a difference between being good and truly great.

“When she first took up water polo, Connie was primarily a defensive player, but now she has become a top offensive threat, as well.  In explaining why she gave up swimming, Connie says that water polo is a super team sport where you can work with the other girls and enjoy being part of a group.”

The Citizen-Times also gave us a plug, publishing a photo of me standing in the YMCA pool with Margaret and Elizabeth.  Under a caption that read “Good Offense or Good Defense?,” the text read “Margaret Boyd, Elizabeth Jeter, and Chuck Hines, left to right, joke about which is best – a good offense or a good defense – in preparation for the AAU Senior Women’s Water Polo Championships starting at the UNCA pool on Friday.  Miss Boyd is an All-America goaltender for the Asheville YMCA team that is hosting the event.  Miss Jeter is an All-America forward and a leading scorer for the Y girls.  Hines is coach of the team.”

Well, if the 1975 Senior Women’s Outdoor Championships – played at UNCA’s indoor pool – were short in numbers, they were long in quality.  Only Asheville and our friends from Florida participated.  In the past, it had been tough enough for us to compete against the two Florida powerhouses – Coral Gables, from the south side of Miami, and North Dade, from the north side – both of which had been AAU Senior Women’s champions.  Now, for whatever the reasons might be, they’d combined into a single squad.  They were calling themselves North Miami Beach, or North Miami, or whatever – it varied from time to time.  With the combining of so many stars into one unit, their entire starting lineup was comprised of All-Americans, and they even had one or two more coming off the bench.

But ya know what?  We gave ‘em a game!  After dispatching the two other Florida entries with ease, 20-to-4 and 12-to-3, our varsity girls were inspired, and they took it to the Miamians.  The score went back and forth, back and forth, and the small crowd of spectators surrounding the UNCA pool was on its feet, sensing an upset.  Didn’t happen, unfortunately, as North Miami Beach prevailed, 10-to-8.

Three of our usual aces – Connie, Margaret, Elizabeth – made Senior All-American, and Molly Griffin, who was fast becoming one of the best in the country, joined them.  Our other ‘A’ or varsity team members were Tina Hartman, Karen Hartman, Debbie Robinson, Page Pless, Susan Sessler, and Melisa Crawford. 

It was on to Toledo, Ohio, for the Junior Olympic Championships.  Our varsity players, when they were younger, had finished last at the JOs in 1970 before earning silver in 1971, gold in 1972, and silver in 1973.  We hadn’t attended the JO Championships at Cerritos, California, in 1974 because our 15-day “western adventure” to San Francisco, Fresno, Yosemite, and Honolulu took precedence.  Now we were back with a brand-new group of girls.

A press release sent out from Toledo told the story: “Mira Costa, California, and Tucson, Arizona, rank as the top-seeded teams in the boys and girls divisions of the National Junior Olympic Water Polo Championships to be held here Friday through Sunday.  Seeded second in the boys bracket is another California club, Fremont.  Other entries include Albuquerque, New Mexico;  Greenville, South Carolina;  Lexington, Kentucky;  North Miami, Florida; New York City;  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;  and from the hosting state, the Greater Toledo Aquatic Club.  There will also be a special guest team representing Puerto Rico.

“Seeded second in the girls category, behind Tucson, is Asheville, North Carolina.  Challengers include North Miami, Florida, and Rochester, New York, and from the hosting state, Mansfield, Ohio.

“Teams from California have dominated the boys competition in recent years, winning for the past three summers.  The girls competition, however, has been wide open, with teams from six different states taking top honors since the JO water polo program was initiated in 1969.  They are Portland, Oregon, in 1969; Sheridan, Illinois, in 1970; Coral Gables, Florida, in 1971; Asheville, North Carolina, in 1972; Arlington, Virginia, in 1973; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1974.

“Junior Olympic water polo, sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union and financed by the Chevrolet division of General Motors, is for players ages 15-and-under.”

The Citizen-Times gave us its usual attention, with an article stating that our junior girls had recently beaten JO opponents form Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky to qualify for the Championships in Ohio.  I was quoted as saying, “Our girls are quite good for 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds and have won 17 of 18 games against Junior Olympic and Junior Women’s teams in 1974 and 1975, but the other teams at Toledo look tough, too … Rochester is very, very fast … North Miami comes from the hotbed of U.S. women’s water polo and is bound to be good … and Tucson has beaten the California clubs and then upset defending champion Albuquerque in their regional playoffs … so we will have to be at our best.”

The article concluded by listing the Asheville team members: goalie Kathy Oates, guards Becky Davis, Tricia Derrough, and Rachel Woodbery; forwards Barbara Anderson, DeeDee Dave, and Diane Johnson; and subs Libby Anderson and Ann Hargrove.

Author and Coach Chuck Hines
Author and Coach Hines with Asheville's 1975 Junior Olympic Team

Sadly, we’d lost one of our best players from this team.  Mary Ann Myers wasn’t the swiftest swimmer in the world, but she could shoot and score with the best.  As a hole forward, she was almost unstoppable in the 15-and-under age group.  She also was a standout in basketball, and as the summer of 1975 approached, she decided to concentrate on B-ball.  I couldn’t blame her.  She became an all-state player for Asheville’s Owen High School, went to Miami University of Ohio on an athletic scholarship and set all of that school’s scoring records, and eventually became an assistant coach at Purdue University.  Wouldn’t you agree she made a wise choice of which sport to pursue when she was 15?

We moved Diane Johnson into the hole forward position, replacing Mary Ann, and brought Rachel Woodbery, a good young swimmer, into our starting lineup.  I still felt comfortable about our chances at Toledo.  That was before I saw the Tucson team, which was BIG, Strong, Fast, and had three dynamic coaches.  They walked into a restaurant where the Asheville girls and I were seated, and our girls were so intimidated they got up and moved away.  It was indicative of what was to come.

We breezed to an easy victory over Mansfield, 26-to-2, and then swamped the swifter girls from Rochester, 18-to-2, again demonstrating the vast difference between merely being able to swim fast and being able to play the complicated “team sport” of water polo.  Next up was North Miami.  Would their younger girls be as good as their older girls, that combined team from Coral Gables and North Dade that had sooo many All-Americans and had edged us at the just-completed Senior Outdoors?

I really had our girls pumped up for this game.  “We can’t afford to lose this one,” I told them.  “Go out and give it your best shot.”  It was Asheville all the way from start to finish.  This was undoubtedly the best game our junior team ever played.  The final score favored our young ladies from the mountains, 8-to-0.  Whoever heard of shutting out one of the strongest squads from Florida?  We’d done it.  Kathy Oates was spectacular as our goalie, and DeeDee Dave led the way on offense.  But as so often happens, we left our best game behind us in the pool.

We never got it going in the title tilt with Tucson.  Frankly, they were just plain BIGGER and better.  The westerners pushed our girls around from the opening whistle, and when it was over, the scoreboard revealed the results: Tucson 9, Asheville 5.

Kathy, DeeDee, Diane Johnson, and Tricia Derrough, a gutsy gal who participated in this tournament despite being ill with mono, were among the 11 players named to the all-tourney and 1975 AAU Junior All-America Team.  Asheville’s Barbara Anderson, our fastest junior swimmer/poloist who sprinted for the ball at the start of each quarter, was one of three girls to receive honorable mention.  IF we’d still had Mary Ann Myers … and IF Tricia had been healthy… would the result have been any different?  Your guess is as good as mine.  We did the best we could.  That’s all anyone can ask.  I was very proud of our young ladies.

Regardless, it was a depressed group that returned home to Asheville.  We thought we were the best in the U.S., but the way it turned out, we weren’t.  We were the best junior girls water polo team in the East, South, and Midwest.  That was no small accomplishment for a YMCA team with limited resources. 

*****

In my humble opinion, my friend Paul Bergen was one of the two best coaches of women’s swimming in the U.S. in the last half of the 20th century.  The other was George Haines.  However, I admit to being a bit biased.  Both had Midwest roots, with Paul being from Wisconsin and George from Indiana.  Not as good as being from Minnesota, but not bad.  George spent his entire coaching career in California.  Paul had a tendency to jump around.  He began coaching in Wisconsin and then went to the Marlins in Cincinnati and then to the Philadelphia Aquatic Club and then to the Nashville Aquatic Club in Tennessee and then … was it Texas, or was it Canada? … and then to Portland, Oregon … and finally back to Canada.  Over the years, I lost track.

But wherever he went, Paul, like George Haines, promoted women’s water polo.  He had his female swimmers, including his many Olympians, and most of his male swimmers, playing polo as an autumn activity.  It wasn’t pansy polo.  Paul and his ladies were out to win the national championship!  When he was with the Marlins, we played against his teams.  When he was in Philadelphia, we played against his teams.  Now he was in Nashville, and one day the phone rang.  “Hello,” I said.

“Hey, this is Paul Bergen … in Nashville … I’d like to bring my water polo girls to Asheville for a weekend of fun there.  How about it?”

“Just give me the date you want to come, Paul.  We’ll be waiting.”

For three years during the month of October in 1975, 1976, and 1977, Paul brought his women’s water polo team to Asheville.  Like us, his players were teenagers, about the same ages as our girls, but there was one glaring difference: they could swim really, Really, REALLY fast.  They knew how to play polo, too, or at least they were learning.  Paul wasn’t used to losing in swimming or water polo.

Nashville brought their sleeping bags and bunked down in our YMCA gymnasium.  We then played seven-per-side in the larger UNCA pool.   The first year, 1975, our girls won by six goals.  The second year, 1976, our girls won by three or four goals, as the Nashville girls were improving.  The third year, 1977, well, more about that later.  This was a good autumn activity for our team in the mid ‘70s.  We didn’t have to travel anywhere; we faced a strong opponent in our home pool; and I could concentrate on coaching the Y’s youth swim squad and our participation in the Blue Ridge League.

Author’s Note:  The Citizen-Times ran a long, comprehensive feature article on our YMCA swim team and said, in part, “Some of the swimmers in the YMCA program this autumn and winter may eventually join the Asheville Aquatic Club.  YMCA Coach Chuck Hines said that last year, four of the best Y swimmers moved to the AAC – Heather and Heidi Jones, Katherine Hartman, and Harry Vujic.  Previously, the Y sent the Michalove brothers and the Katterman sisters and two or three others to the AAC.  Hines said those with real ability and the desire to become involved with big-time Amateur Athletic Union swimming couldn’t find a better coach than the AAC’s Betsy Montgomery anywhere in the Carolinas.  Meanwhile, for those youngsters remaining at the Y, Hines tries to channel them into two directions.  One is water polo, in which the Y fields its own big-time teams that have won several national YMCA and AAU tourneys in recent years. The other direction is leadership work.  ‘We taught over 1,000 persons, mostly children, in our swim classes last year,’ said Hines, ‘and we’re planning to branch out and use more community pools this year, so we’re always in need of competent and experienced swimmers who can teach the beginners.  Right now, two of our swimmers who also are All-America water poloists, 17-year-olds Connie Hartman and Molly Griffin, are teaching beginners for us at The Oaks pool in Black Mountain.  Serving in this manner can be just as gratifying and rewarding as winning a swimming race or a water polo game.’”

As the year ended, I received an unexpected award.  I was chosen as the AAU Women’s Water Polo Coach of the Year.  Hmmm.  I was still chairing the National Women’s Water Polo Committee, and I’m not sure who was responsible for giving the award to me.  I felt a little guilty.  But as someone pointed out: in the spring of the year, the Asheville YMCA girls had won a small international tournament at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, and then in the summer we’d hosted the Senior Women’s Outdoors and placed a close second to the North Miami Beach (North Miami) all-star squad, and then we’d competed in the Junior Olympics at Toledo and finished as runners-up to Tucson.  We had four players who’d made Senior All-American and four who’d made Junior All-American.  No other team in the country had done better.  So thanks to the great girls I was coaching and their ongoing efforts and successes, plus the support of their parents, which mustn’t be overlooked, I was given the award.  Cool.

The girls were not without recognition themselves.  At the annual North Carolina AAU Awards Banquet held each January in Charlotte, the best teams and amateur athletes in the state were honored.  This had included the Asheville Aquatic Club swimmers and the Asheville YMCA water poloists over the past few years.  In 1972 and again in 1973, Olympian Mary Montgomery won the Casey Award for being the best North Carolina female athlete.  In 1975, Connie Hartman and Elizabeth Jeter were two of the finalists for the Casey Award, with Connie, who was an All-American in swimming as well as water polo, winning.  Now, in January of 1976, Margaret Boyd was a finalist.  She didn’t win, but like Elizabeth, she was among the runners-up.  Wow.

The Citizen-Times covered the event and concluded its article by saying that “serving as emcee of the banquet, which attracted an attendance of 500, was Chuck Hines, director of aquatics at the Asheville YMCA and chairman of the new International Women’s Water Polo Committee.”

Yes, our Y water polo team – teams, in fact – were doing well, and we were continuing to make s-l-o-w progress at expanding women’s water polo nationally and internationally.

*****

Good ol’ Ken McGartlin, the director of aquatics at the YMCA in nearby Greenville, South Carolina, was a go-getter.  He was a young man of intense enthusiasm.  He wasn’t a coach himself, but he made sure he had good coaches for the Greenville teams, which were always among the very best throughout the Carolinas in AAU and Y competitive swimming.  His water polo teams, both the boys and the girls, weren’t bad, and he’d recently hired Mike Burdges, whom you may recall coached North Dade of Miami to the championship of the 1974 AAU Women’s Water Polo Outdoors, held at Fresno, California.

With Mike onboard, Ken had volunteered to conduct the AAU and YMCA Junior National Championships for 18-and-under boys separately but concurrently, over the same weekend, at his six-lane, 25-yard Greenville Y pool in late April of 1976.  Quite an ambitious undertaking.

“How about adding a girls’ category?” I suggested, not anticipating a positive reply.

“Okay,” Ken said, “but we’re going to do it my way.  It’ll be a combined AAU and YMCA event, just for 18-and-under girls, with the AAU and Y teams facing each other.  I don’t have the pool time or space or enough referees to do anything else.  We’ll just fit you in between all the boys’ games.”

This is the event mentioned previously in which Paul Barren’s Lower Moreland High School from the Philadelphia area took the AAU boys title, while the Brooklyn Branch YMCA of Cleveland, Ohio, copped the YMCA boys crown.  They played in separate categories.  Our Asheville boys, who at that time were young and inexperienced, finished fifth in the Y competition.

There were five entries in the single, combined AAU and YMCA Junior Nationals for girls: Asheville, Greenville, Tri-Cities from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area, and a team – I forget which city they represented – from Ohio, all of them being YMCA-affiliated – plus Lower Moreland from Philly, an AAU entry.  Since this was for 18-and-unders, some of our varsity players were a bit too old.  We still had Page Pless, Molly Griffin, Melisa Crawford, Susan Sessler, and Connie Hartman from the varsity, and we added juniors DeeDee Dave, Tricia Derrough, Holly Harpe, and goalies Cheryl Frisby and Kathy Oates.

It should be noted that the AAU rules for Junior Men’s and Junior Women’s competition had finally been changed, thankfully.  No longer could players as old as 33, as I was at Miles City, Montana, take part in a Junior Men’s or Junior Women’s tournament, and no longer would players become automatically ineligible after winning a Junior Men’s or Junior Women’s tourney, whatever their ages.  It was now strictly an 18-and-under competition, determined by age only.  Period.

We had a mixture of girls who weren’t used to playing together, which is a key element for winning in water polo.  Nevertheless we started off strong, submerging Lower Moreland, 26-to-4, with DeeDee and Tricia scoring seven and six goals, respectively, and Kathy starring as our goalkeeper.  These three juniors were having no trouble moving up to join our varsity members.  This was followed by convincing victories over Greenville and the Ohio club.  We faced Tri-Cities in the finals.  This was the team coached by John Schiebel that had come to Asheville two years previously to scrimmage us and learn more about the game.  They’d won the 1975 YMCA Championships, which we hadn’t attended.  As we scouted their games this weekend, we could see they were vastly improved.

Early on, they gave us a run for the money.  We led 2-to-1 and then 4-to-2 and then 6-to-3 at the start of the fourth quarter.  They scored and narrowed the margin to 6-to-4.  They almost scored again, but Susan Sessler, one of our best defenders who seldom received the praise she deserved, made a great play, intercepting a pass that resulted in a five-on-three counterattack for us, and a score.  This seemed to take the wind out of the Tri-Citians.  We added two more tallies to win, 9-to-4, but it hadn’t been that easy.  Molly Griffin, who’d just turned 18, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player in the girls category.  Previously an AAU Junior All-American in 1972 and an AAU Senior All-American in 1975, she was solid on both offense and defense in this tourney.

I remember the first summer I was stationed at the new YMCA in downtown Asheville.  That was in 1970.  Molly was 12 and working hard on her basic swimming skills.  She’d come to the Y two or three afternoons weekly, and I’d put her in lane four, and she’d do her laps.  She went to an AAU swim meet somewhere in east Tennessee and won a few medals, returning home excited and enthused.  Soon thereafter, she moved up a hesitant step or two in our Y water polo program.  Geez, I thought to myself at the tournament in Greenville, look at her now – one of the best in the U.S.

But we went to the next tourney without Molly.  She was given permission to stay home and attend her senior prom.   There are some things, many things, in fact, that are more important than water polo.  I never forgot that.

Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania was hosting another big event, thanks to Coach Pat Barry.  It was the 1976 AAU Senior Women’s Indoors, to which we were adding a North American Invitational, just as we’d done the year before.  No California clubs were entered.  No Florida teams signed up.  I figured this might be our best-ever opportunity to WIN the Senior competition, even though Molly wasn’t available and a couple of our older girls, now in college, weren’t in great shape.  We practiced as diligently as possible, and I told the girls, “This may be your last tournament together, so let’s do our best.”

We had a strong starting lineup: Margaret as goalie; Karen, Page, and Susan as guards; and Connie, Elizabeth, and Melisa as forwards.  As usual, we were a bit short-handed in the sub department.  We had Tricia and DeeDee who’d moved up from our junior team, plus Nina VanderRee, whom I brought along especially for this event.  She’d been a YMCA swimmer as a youngster and then transferred to the Asheville Aquatic Club, and now she was back with us at the Y.  Although lacking in advanced water polo skills, she was a very swift swimmer with a combative attitude, and I thought she could cover for us on defense, if needed.

Despite the absence of the teams from Florida and California, I soon realized this tournament wasn’t going to be a pushover for us.  A press release from Mercersburg informed readers that “four undefeated teams, including the Asheville YMCA, will be vying for top honors in the combined AAU Senior National and North American Invitational Women’s Water Polo Championships here Friday through Sunday.

“The Asheville Y team, representing the South, boasts a 7-0 record so far this spring and has already won the AAU and YMCA Junior National titles.  Ridge Park of Chicago, another unbeaten, will be representing the Midwest, and Slippery Rock University, also undefeated, is the leading East Coast entry.  Also expected to challenge for the AAU crown is the hosting Mercersburg Academy squad, which won the Junior Nationals two years ago.

“Ste-Foy of Quebec City, Canada, which has won the Canadian women’s title for the past two years and hasn’t lost a game to a Canadian or U.S. opponent during that span, is the fourth undefeated entry.  Ste-Foy and Hamilton, Ontario, the second-ranked Canadian club, will face the top U.S. teams upon completion of the AAU round-robin.  This will be for the North American championship.

“Asheville won the initial North American crown last year, defeating teams from California and Pennsylvania as well as two Canadian clubs, and should be a contender this year, even though All-American Molly Griffin will not be playing this weekend.  The Y women will play two unranked opponents on Friday, taking on Lower Moreland, Pennsylvania, and Rochester, New York, and if victorious, will advance to the quarter-finals Saturday.”

On Friday, without much effort, we smothered Lower Moreland and Rochester.  On Saturday, we took on Mercersburg, whose girls were fast and good and had the home pool advantage.  We won easily, 17-to-2.  Then we faced Ridge Park of Chicago, coached by Jim Mulcrone, whom I knew from my days at Des Moines and Canton.  Jim was a hefty gentleman who’d been a fine polo player and was now a competent coach.  As much as I liked him, I was still smarting from the day in 1969 when he’d brought an all-star squad from Chicago to take on our young lads from little Canton, Illinois.  That had been a bit unfair.  But never one to harbor grudges or resentments, I instructed our girls to take it easy on a fairly young Ridge Park team, and they did, winning by “only” 17-to-5.  It pleases me to tell you that Jim Mulcrone has been inducted posthumously into the U.S. Water Polo Hall of Fame, and deservedly so.  He was a major leader of Midwest water polo for 40 years.

Asheville and Slippery Rock University, coached by Doc Hunkler, were the two remaining unbeaten U.S. teams in the competition at Mercersburg.  The collegians had whipped Charleston, West Virginia, and others in their bracket.  The schedule now called for us to battle the Canadian clubs in North American Invitational action on Sunday morning.  We played Hamilton and won, 9-to-5.  Slippery Rock engaged Slippery Rock engaged in combat with Ste-Foy and lost by five goals.  It appeared the Quebecois were definitely the class of the tourney.

Then it was Asheville versus Slippery Rock for the U.S. indoor championship in the afternoon.  Both teams played cautiously.  The college ladies were bigger, rougher.  Our YMCA girls were determined, tenacious.  Connie scored on a fast break and we led, 1-0, and then in the second quarter, Karen caught an elbow and had her nose broken.  Play was stopped while she was treated and the blood coagulated.  She was in pain, so we sent her to the Mercersburg infirmary.  I inserted young Tricia Derrough into the conflict, and the game continued.

Without Molly, and now without Karen, we still led, 1-0, going into the fourth quarter, but it was obvious our gang was tiring.  Slippery Rock tied it, 1-to-1, and then, with less than a minute left, they slipped in what appeared to be the game-winner, and they went out in front, 2-to-1.  We put the ball into play and passed it around and finally to Elizabeth with about 20 seconds remaining on the clock.  Normally our hole forward who sets up and scores from in front of the opposing cage, she’d been stymied by the stout Slippery Rock defense throughout the encounter.  So she moved outside, eight yards from the goal, took the pass thrown to her, and as I shouted “Shoot!” from the sidelines, she powered a long, l-o-n-g shot directly into the top right corner of the Slippery Rock cage.  The clock showed two seconds remaining as the scoreboard changed to Asheville 2, Slippery Rock 2.  Whew.

Since this was 1976, an Olympic year, we were playing by Olympic rules at this tournament, and there were no overtimes permitted, so the contest ended in a deadlock.  We had at least a share of the U.S. Senior Women’s title.

But we had to come back a couple of hours later with our team of totally exhausted players and take on Ste-Foy for the North American championship on Sunday night.  Well, water poloists are TOUGH.  They train assiduously and often play two games in one day at major tourneys.  What was the big deal about playing THREE games in one day or SEVEN games over a three-day period?  Ste-Foy jumped ahead early and led at halftime, 4-to-2, but we kept it reasonably close as I let Tricia, DeeDee, and Nina play most of the second half.  The final score favored the Canadians, 7-to-4.  IF Molly had been available … and IF Karen hadn’t been injured … would the result have been any different?  Your guess is as good as mine.  We did the best we could.  That’s all anyone can ask.  Once again, I was very proud of our young ladies.

A week later, there was a lengthy article in the Citizen-Times, along with a photo of Karen (broken nose and all) and Connie and Margaret, who’d all made the Senior All-America Team, as did Elizabeth.  The article ended by saying, “Future successes of the YMCA team will rest on the shoulders of the younger girls, as the eight older girls will be going to different colleges in North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.  But each girl will take with her the memories of hard practicing, persistence, and perseverance, culminating in the co-championship of the United States.”

Author’s Note:  We were subsequently awarded the U.S. championship over Slippery Rock on the basis of having a higher “goal average” during the tournament at Mercersburg. This was the rule, and I knew it at the time, but with Karen ailing and the North American games to be played and the All-Americans to be selected, I didn’t push the issue at Mercersburg.  I came home and announced that we were co-champions due to our tie with Slippery Rock.  It was the national committee meeting later in the year that applied the rule and decided Asheville was No. 1.  Under Coach Doc Hunkler, Slippery Rock went on to win numerous other tournaments, some of them national, in both AAU and NCAA competition.  After I “retired” from the water polo scene, Doc took over as perhaps the leading advocate for women’s water polo in the U.S., a role he has played for the past several decades.  He’s now in three or maybe four water polo Halls of Fame.  

*****

The YMCA’s new exec, Bill Fesperman, was pushing all of us on the staff to do more programming away from the overcrowded downtown facility and out in the community.  So once again in the summer of 1976, we were operating a spacious outdoor pool in the Brookwood section of south Asheville.  As if I didn’t have enough to do.

I was busy with aquatic activities downtown and hustling 15 miles to Brookwood and back every other day.   It was at the extreme opposite end of the county from where I lived, so I was doing a lot of driving.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.  It was tiresome.  Our “older” varsity water polo players, most of whom were now in college, or getting ready to go, were anxious for a break after a strenuous spring season, which was a good thing, as I felt the same way.

However, I had a brand-new group of 13- and 14-year-old girls coming up.  It was our ‘C’ team.  They’d been just mediocre swimmers for us when younger, and I hadn’t given them much time when it came to water polo – frankly, I didn’t have much time – but they talked me into taking them to the Junior Olympic Championships at Albuquerque.  They’d won a couple of regional games against easy opponents, so I consented to take them to the JOs.  This would expose them to what water polo was all about at the national level.  Besides, Albuquerque is always an interesting place to visit, and the water polo people there, led by Dr. Roy Goddard and Dick Simmons, were competent and pleasant.  We had the usual small squad of eight – seven starters and one sub – and we flew out west and had a great time in New Mexico, even though the competition was tough.  We finished fourth, losing two games by a single goal each.  I’d hoped to do better, as always, but it was a good experience for our youngsters, and one Asheville girl, Becky Davis, was an all-tournament and AAU Junior All-America selection.

During the autumn months, we had two events.  We hosted Paul Bergen and his Nashville Aquatic Club girls for a second time, and we took a weekend trip to swim and play polo at Raleigh, North Carolina.  Raleigh was one of the 80 YMCAs across the country playing water polo at that time, and although they never entered the Y Nationals due to a conflict with their swimming schedule, their teams, coached by Eric Schwall, were very fast and quite good.  Once again the Citizen-Times published the results in a story that said, “Asheville YMCA water polo teams won four and lost one against Raleigh Y teams last weekend in games played at the Ravenscroft School pool.

“The Asheville varsity girls, who earlier in the year won the U.S. Senior Women’s Indoor title, defeated the Raleigh varsity girls, 13-to-3, as Elizabeth Jeter and Karen Hartman scored four and three goals, respectively, and Tricia Derrough added three.  Goalie Margaret Boyd was the defensive standout.  By winning, the Y varsity has concluded the year with a 15-0-1 record against U.S. opponents while also splitting two games against the best Canadian women’s teams in international competition.

“Asheville’s junior girls, ages 13 and 14, edged Raleigh’s junior girls, 11-to-9, but lost to Raleigh’s varsity girls, also 11-to-9.  Leading scorers for Asheville were Ericka Mills with six goals and Becky Davis and Lisa Graham with five apiece.

“The Y’s junior boys, ages 13 and 14, nipped Raleigh’s junior boys, 6-to-4, but lost an unofficial scrimmage to Raleigh’s varsity boys, 19-to-12.  In the junior victory, Dave Duncan, Dave Habel, and Jim Murray tallied two goals each.

“The Y poloists will now turn to other activities during the indoor swim season before resuming practice next March.”

On November 21, 1976, the newspaper ran another article of major importance.  It was headlined “YMCA Aquatic Program Judged No. 2 in the U.S.”  While it was nice to be winning in water polo – a real ego-booster for all of us – it was more important for us at the YMCA to be teaching general aquatic activities to many hundreds of our members annually.  This is what the Y was really paying me to do.  This was the financial underpinning, the foundation, the basis, of what the Y was, and is, all about.  Come and join us.  We want YOU.  The more the merrier.  At the YMCA, everyone plays.  The winning by the elite athletes was simply the proverbial icing on the cake.

Under the aforementioned headline, the Citizen-Times reported that “the Asheville YMCA has been awarded second place in the national aquatic programming contest conducted by the United States Swimming Foundation.  The contest was designed to survey and study aquatic programs across the country, with the judges placing equal emphasis on quality and quantity.  In the category for non-profit agencies, Asheville was selected as second-best behind the Little Rock, Arkansas, YWCA.

“The local YMCA this year has conducted swimming classes in six different pools throughout Buncombe County and has taught over 1,000 students, young and older.  The Y has worked with the Red Cross to teach two Senior Lifesaving courses and has offered additional instruction in competitive swimming, scuba diving, water ballet, and water polo.  The women’s water polo team won the U.S. indoor championship.

“A staff of over 40 part-time and volunteer instructors, lifeguards, and leaders has helped operate the Asheville YMCA aquatic curriculum, under the direction of Chuck Hines.”

Wow.  That was nice.  It was a big program that kept me busy.  Very busy.  And then I received a letter from the YMCA’s National Physical Education Management Team, asking if I and the Asheville YMCA would “design a physical education program that appeals to the adventurous nature of youth, preferably one that can be done outdoors.”  Oh, man.  As if I didn’t have enough to do.

*****

Over the Christmas holidays, we played some pick-up polo at the YMCA.  Many of our collegiate boys and girls were back home and participated, along with the current crop of high schoolers.  It was five-per-side fun.  One day I had several of the girls in my office, and I said, “I just received an invitation to compete in an international tournament in Canada, but I turned it down.”

“You did, Coach?  Why?”

“It’s being held in early April, and there’s no way we can field a decent team at that time of the year, particularly with some of y’all now in college.  Too bad, though, because I understand the Dutch will be there.”  The Netherlands, where men’s and women’s water polo had been played at a high level for many decades, was recognized as the leading country in the world when it came to women’s water polo.

“Besides,” I continued, “who can afford to go to Canada for a week?  It’d be very expensive.”

A few days later, I told the girls, “The Canadians called again.  They’re really interested in having us come to their tourney, which they hope to use to demonstrate to FINA that women’s water polo is a legitimate sport.  But there’s just no way we can go.”

The ladies agreed.  “No way, Coach.”

Then a day or two later, I said, “The Canadians called again.  They’re willing to pay almost all of our expenses – round-trip air fare, lodging, and even car rental.  We’d have to pay for our meals, of course, plus a $50-per-player entry fee to cover the officiating costs.”

“Hey, this is sounding better and better, Coach.”

“Well, if we went, it’d be for a full week.  And we’d have to play the Canadians, the Californians, the Dutch, and maybe the Australians.  Very Tough Stuff!”

“That’s okay,” several of the girls chortled with glee.  “Let’s go.”

“Y’all get on the phone with each other and see if you can line up a full team to make the trip.  Be sure to keep your parents informed.  We’ll need permission from all of them.  Then let me know.”

Gradually, one by one, the Y women – I no longer saw them as young girls – called me and said, “Put me on your list, Coach.  I want to go.”  We had five players, six, then seven, eight.  Not quite enough for an international event, but we still hadn’t heard from the Hartman sisters.  It took another few weeks, but finally all three – Tina, Karen, Connie – jumped on board.  I called the Canadians and said, “We’re coming.  Send us the details.”

Okay, we’d committed ourselves to what was being billed as the initial World Women’s Water Polo Club Championships.  Now how do we practice for it, I wondered?

Three of our best current players – Page, Debbie, Kathy – would not be going.  It’s interesting to note that all three of them kept on playing recreational water polo at the YMCA in the 1980s.  Too bad they missed out on this trip.  Of the 11 who’d signed up to go to Canada, eight were now attending various colleges scattered over four states, and only one, Connie, was doing any serious swimming.  The rest were concentrating on their studies, or so they said.  Of those still at home and in high school, two were engaged in Y competitive swimming, and one was playing basketball.  Truthfully, we didn’t have even a single athlete who was in top shape for playing WATER POLO.

And yet … and yet … how could we pass up an opportunity to compete in the first real women’s international tournament, especially with the Canadians covering most of our expenses?  They’d even offered to pay for our breakfasts each morning.  I urged our ladies, wherever they were, to get into the water as often as possible and work-out on their own.  Most did this once or twice weekly, as it turned out.  I scheduled six Sunday afternoon practices in our small Asheville YMCA pool during February and March, hoping the collegians would return home for at least some of the weekends.  Most attended four or five of the two-hour Sunday sessions.  We did the usual drills and scrimmaged five-per-side.  It wasn’t much, but it was the best we could do.  My main concern was making sure everyone stayed healthy and happy.

“YMCA Set for World Water Polo,” announced the Citizen-Times in bold headlines, indicating that “the Asheville YMCA’s varsity water polo team will be one of two teams representing the U.S. in the first World Women’s Water Polo Club Championships at Quebec City, Canada, on April 1-3.

“Asheville Coach Chuck Hines said that while there have been some international women’s matches played in the past, this is the first sanctioned tourney involving clubs from a number of different countries.  Asheville was invited to participate because of having a 28-3-1 record over the past two years which includes winning national AAU and YMCA titles.  Also competing will be the Commerce club from California.

“Seeded first and favored to win the international championship at Quebec City is the HZC de Robben club from Hilversum in The Netherlands, the top-ranked women’s team in Europe.  Ste-Foy of Canada and Queensland of Australia are seeded second and third.

“Hines said this was a tough time of the year for his Asheville team to be at its best, but that they are hurrying to put together the strongest possible lineup.  Likely starters for Asheville will be Margaret Boyd as goalie; the Hartman sisters – Karen, Connie, Tina – as guards; and Elizabeth Jeter, Molly Griffin, and high school standout Tricia Derrough as forwards.  Serving as substitutes will be guards Susan Sessler and Nina VanderRee and forwards Melisa Crawford and DeeDee Dave.


Asheville YMCA team at the 1977 World Women's Club
Championship conducted at Montreal and Quebec City, Canada

“The Asheville aggregation will fly into Montreal on Wednesday, March 30, and play an exhibition game that night and another the following day in the Olympic pool, also taking time for sight-seeing.  On Friday, April 1, the team will drive to Quebec City, where, for three days, they’ll compete in the World Club Championships.  The Ashevilleans will return home on Tuesday, April 5.

“Hines said his team has played all over the U.S. from Florida to California to Hawaii, but representing the U.S. in international competition has to be their biggest thrill.”

The Charlotte Observer also reported on our forthcoming trip, and sportswriter Peter Barnes stated, “It just might be the Carolinas’ best-kept sports secret.  Talk about water polo around here and most people think of massive Hungarians or sun-burned Californians.  It’s a pretty good bet they won’t think about the teenaged Asheville girls who rank with the nation’s best.

“Asheville’s Chuck Hines, water polo apostle to the Carolinas, admits that water polo isn’t going to be a big sport here anytime soon because there just aren’t enough pools.  But he says people will be surprised to see how many places have gotten involved.  Most involved of all is Asheville, where Hines has attracted 80 kids from the city and built himself a monster of a program at the YMCA.  He directs five girls and boys teams, with a game schedule that carries them to college campuses and to a variety of pools across the country.  This coming weekend, Hines will take the Y’s varsity girls to the inaugural World Women’s Club Championships in Canada.
 
“Spartanburg and Greenville in South Carolina and Raleigh and Shelby in North Carolina are other communities that are strong in water polo.  Hines smiles and says he can hear the swimming coaches complaining that they don’t have enough pool time for their swimmers, much less a water polo team, but he says water polo is a great sport and the kids love it.  From what I’ve learned, they certainly do.”

 There’s no need to continue with this tale.  If you’ve read the Introduction to this book, you know what happened in the games we played at Montreal and Quebec City.  We did the best we could under the circumstances.  That’s all anyone can ask.  As always, I was very proud of our young ladies.  I should add that Connie Hartman, who was our high scorer, made the 11-player all-tournament team.

Going with our women and girls to this competition and standing on the pool deck and listening to the national anthem being played – our national anthem – as we prepared to take on the No. 1 women’s water polo team in the world from The Netherlands – was a highlight of my life.  We had come a l-o-n-g way from that moldy, smelly four-lane, 20-yard basement pool in a dilapidated, falling-apart YMCA facility.  Best of all, we’d made the trip up the ladder Together.   As a Team.    One for all, and all for one!

*****

During the Club Championships at Montreal and Quebec City, we had a two- to three-hour meeting of coaches to discuss the future of women’s water polo.  I attended, as did Sandy Nita from Commerce, California.  The Canadian coaches were there.  Of utmost significance was the attendance of Thea de Witt, the Team Leader of the HZC de Robben Water Polo Club from Hilversum in The Netherlands.  Plans were made for expanding women’s water polo, which I later shared with my friend Bob Helmick of Des Moines, who by now was playing a key role for FINA, the organization that governs all aquatic sports internationally.

As a result of our efforts, Sandy Nitta went back home and conducted the second part of the World Women’s Club Championships as an addendum to the competition in Canada.  This was a tournament held in the Commerce pool with an international field of entries, including the Aussies and Mexicans.  Bob Helmick appointed Thea de Witt to an official position within FINA to promote and publicize women’s water polo throughout Europe, which she did for many years thereafter, ultimately being elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  We in Asheville also played a role by hosting a tournament in the summer of 1977 that has important implications for those of us in the East and South.

We called it the Women’s International Invitational, and we invited the strong Ste-Foy squad from Canada to come and compete.  They accepted our invitation.  Then we invited an outstanding team from the Southwestern United States, San Jacinto of Houston, Texas.  They accepted.  We invited our Florida friends from North Miami Beach (or North Miami) and Fort Lauderdale.  They accepted.  Counting our Asheville varsity, this gave us five teams.  We wanted another team from Canada, so we invited Hamilton, Ontario.  They declined, probably because they’d lost to us three or four times in a row.  We invited a club from the Midwest – was it Chicago?  I don’t remember – and after initially accepting, they reneged at the last moment.  So we stuck in an Asheville ‘B’ team, comprised mostly of our Junior Olympians from 1975, to round out the field.

In July, we conducted a three-day, seven-per-side, no-holds-barred tournament at the UNCA pool.  We played a team calling itself North Miami in our first game.  They were a strange mixture of players from Coral Gables, North Dade, North Miami Beach, and North Miami.  A couple of their aces from the past were missing, but several were still playing, and they’d picked up some good younger girls from their JO programs.  It was sort of an all-star squad of the old and the new from the Miami area.  Within the first five minutes, Connie Hartman was whistled for two offensive fouls – the third one removes you from the game permanently – and she was never a factor.  In fact, she sat on the bench for the next two quarters.  It did not look good for Asheville.

Yet despite Connie’s absence and another dozen major fouls called against us, by far the most ever, our ladies played an excellent game, leading all the way and squeezing out a narrow 9-to-8 victory in a VERY combative contest.  Elizabeth Jeter was training seriously again after being away at college.  Back in form, she scored four goals for us, with left-handed Tina Hartman popping in two on our 6-against-5 advantage situations and Molly Griffin, Karen Hartman, and Debbie Robinson adding one each.

We had no trouble with Fort Lauderdale or Houston or our own ‘B’ team, which was led by DeeDee Dave, defeating all three decisively, and moved unbeaten to the concluding contest with Ste-Foy, which also had won its games in the round-robin competition without being seriously challenged.  Those gals were darn good!  They were ranked No. 2 in the world at the time, behind only the top Dutch team, and a year later, Ste-Foy defeated Hilversum and moved up to the No. 1 spot globally.  So we were playing The Best of THE BEST in our hometown pool.

Our women were not at all intimidated, and we traded Ste-Foy goal for goal during the first half, which ended 5-to-5.  They scored in the third quarter.  We scored.  They scored.  It was 7-to-6 in their favor and anyone’s game going into the fourth period.  But they were too good, scoring at the three-minute mark and again in the final few seconds – when we pulled our goalie in a desperate measure – to hand us a 9-to-6 defeat.  Elizabeth tallied three times and Connie, Karen, and Tina once each.  Molly, Debbie, and goalie Margaret Boyd were our other starters, with Susan Sessler and Melisa Crawford coming off the bench.

Elizabeth and the star of the Ste-Foy team were co-recipients of the Most Valuable Player award.

Author’s Note:  They say that everything that goes around, comes around.  It’s eerie how this International Invitational that we hosted in Asheville in 1977 resembled the International Invitational that we’d hosted at Minneapolis in 1959 when I was first becoming involved with water polo.  Both were YMCA-sponsored, with six teams, and included Canadian representation, and the competition was tough.  But there was one minor difference and one major difference.  We’d played five-per-side in a small, shallow basement pool in 1959, whereas we played seven-per-side in a larger, deeper pool in 1977.  More significantly, the tournament in 1959 was for men and boys, while the tourney in 1977 was for women and girls, who hadn’t been playing polo anywhere in the U.S. in the late ‘50s.  We’d made at least SOME progress during my years of national leadership.

But for me, and I think for all of our varsity players, this was the end of the road.  There just wasn’t anything more to be accomplished.  With no intercollegiate opportunities in women’s water polo anywhere in the South, it was time to move on to other activities, other challenges.  Time for the “juniors” to become the new varsity, if they had the desire to do so.  And what about those younger 13- and 14-year-olds I’d taken to Albuquerque the previous summer?  They were still around.

We arranged for Margaret Boyd to take these up-and-coming ‘C-teamers’ to the 1977 Junior Olympic Championships being held at Miami.  I still hadn’t given them the time and coaching they deserved, but there are only so many hours in a day.  With just two or three hours of practicing per week, they were gradually getting better and had beaten Greenville, South Carolina, 9-to-2, to win the regional JO title.  They’d also edged a good visiting team of older girls from Pennsylvania, 8-to-7.  Things were looking positive, and then over the summer months, three of our Y girls were sidelined, including hole forward and top scorer Ericka Mills and Junior All-America guard Becky Davis.  Then the coach caught the bug.  The Citizen-Times reported the sad story: “Despite injuries and illnesses, the Asheville YMCA junior girls water polo team will be competing Monday through Thursday at the AAU Junior Olympic Championships in Miami.

“This marks the seventh time the Asheville YMCA has qualified a team for the JO Championships – 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, and now 1977 – which is a national record.  However, three starters will not be making the trip to Miami, and the team’s coach, Margaret Boyd, had been hospitalized recently after starring for the Y’s senior squad in its recent international tournament held here, although she’s expected to be ready for the trip to Miami.

“Tucson, Arizona, the 1975 titlist, is favored, with Long Beach, California, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, regarded as the probable contenders.  Asheville will be a darkhorse entry, at best.

“Representing Asheville will be goalie Cindy Graham, 14; guards Libby Anderson, 15, Julie Councell, 15, and Monique Wiegman, 14; forwards Lisa Graham, 15, Carolina Isbey, 14, and Tracy Maddox, 14; and substitute Katherine Hartman, 13.”  Yeah, as usual, we had just a single sub.  Nothin’ new.

I wasn’t there, but I was told the girls had a good trip and played as well as could be expected, placing in the middle of a pack of seven or eight teams.  The local paper printed a follow-up article that said, “Lisa Graham of the Asheville YMCA was named to the 1977 AAU Junior All-America Water Polo Team on Saturday upon conclusion of the Junior Olympic Championships at Miami, Florida.  Receiving honorable mention was Libby Anderson.  Both girls are 15.”

We still had one more game to play.  Paul Bergen and his Nashville Aquatic Club speedsters were coming to town in October.  He knew that most of our best older girls had “retired.”  I knew that he and his team – which included World swimming champion Tracy Caulkins, National women’s water polo team member Amy Caulkins, and Olympian Joan Pennington – wanted to whip us.  They wanted it badly.  We weren’t practicing much water polo during the autumn months, and I struggled to organize a team, ending up with two varsity stars, goalie Margaret Boyd and guard Karen Hartman, plus five of our so-called “juniors” from the past, led by Tricia Derrough, with two or three younger ‘C’ team members serving as subs.

Playing seven-per-side at the UNCA pool, we didn’t have much firepower and spent most of the time swimming backwards and trying to thwart Nashville’s swifties.  They broke free and shot at Margaret time and time and time again, and she calmly blocked one of their shots after another.  Our makeshift squad snuck in one goal in the first quarter, another in the second quarter, another in the third quarter, and in the fourth quarter, Margaret and Karen continued to turn back every Nashville attack.  Standing on the sidelines, I crossed my fingers as the minutes dwindled down to seconds and then … it was over.

The final score was Asheville YMCA 3, Nashville Aquatic Club 2.  Paul Bergen came to me shaking his head in disbelief and said, “Your goalie Margaret was like a sponge.  She soaked up everything we threw at her.  That was an All-America performance if I ever saw one.”  Indeed.

This was the last significant water polo game we played, and it was a nice one to win over a team that went on to finish first at the U.S. Senior Women’s Swimming Championships.  Well done, Asheville!

Next month – Chapter 7 –Water Polo. the New Era, Asheville, North Carolina, 1980 – 1999