At my age the nectar of nostalgia is not only for the gods but it is also for those who have followed Robert Frost’s advice and taken the path less traveled – the path that leads through the sport of water polo. And Frost was correct when he said it will make all the difference in the world and he could have added not just the world but in one’s memory banks as well. Moreover, I am getting ready to play my memory bank for you once again. If you think you are trapped in the nightmare of one of Woody Allen’s movies, “Play It Again Sam”, you just may be right. Only in this nightmare you can escape very easily by clicking the small x in the top right hand corner of this page.
During my senior year at Texas A&M University I was called, “Hunkdad”, by many of the freshmen in the athletic dorm. I received that nom de plume because of my dislike of the experience of walking the “Bull Ring”. Since at that time A&M was an all male, military college, any digressions of the strict military rules was rewarded with demerits, and a rebellious young person such as my inquisitive and uninitiated self accumulated tons of these demerits.
On the weekends cadets with too many demerits were made to walk them off in a large vacant lot called the “Bull Ring”. Cadets did this wearing dress khakis, a helmet liner (known lovingly by cadets as a piss-pot), and carrying an unloaded M-1 rifle. When the rifle was called a gun by a cadet, the cadet was made to make lewd gestures with the rifle and certain anatomy of the body and to say this memorable poem, “This is my rifle and this is my gun; this is for killing and this is for fun!” We were made to march with an unloaded rifle to protect those cadet officers who supervised this cruel and unusual punishment.
You walked the Bull Ring in the hot Texas sun for fifty minutes and then you were given a ten minute break. Some cadets such as my unwitting self walked the Bull Ring for several hours. On one of the breaks during my impressionable, lucky, first time of marching the Bull Ring, I asked one of the cadet officers in charge why didn’t we spend this wasted time doing some useful chores such as cleaning the restrooms (known affectionately as the “crapper”) with toothbrushes? On the spot he awarded me enough demerits to warrant another hour on this Bull Ring tour of duty - lucky me. I might add my freshmen year I held the record in my company if not the entire school for marching the most number of hours on the mind expanding, problem solving, and combat readying, Bull Ring.
Seniors not only got the privilege of wearing calf length, blister creating, leather boots but they also had the privilege of giving cadets merits as well as demerits. Whenever a freshman athlete came to me with a sob story about having his dream date up for the weekend football game, I would give him enough merits to counter act his demerits and his meaningless walk on the Bull Ring. Anyone with an IQ over 90 and with a keen memory of spending an enormous number of hours on the Bull Ring would know how spending the time with an incredibly smart and fun female was much more important than spending useless hours walking the archaic Bull Ring. Thus, this is how I received my acquired nickname, “Hunkdad”, my senior year at Texas A&M.
Men’s Water Polo
I always used to say if you gave me nine dedicated Samurai or nine disciplined Zulus that were fast swimmers as freshman at the Rock then I could win the NCAA Championships for four years in a row. Today to win a National Championship, or for that matter, a Conference Championship you need a number of thoroughbred players, and the days of winning at the Division I level with homegrowns and with average players who were as hard working as mules are long gone. Back to the story at hand.
One year I gave handouts to my players that tried to translate the Bushido code of the Samurai into water polo axioms. At an important tournament at Navy I gave the players authentic looking Samurai headbands to wear under their water polo caps. (My lovely wife Billie not only made water polo caps for the teams but she also made Samurai headbands for the men and cooked the meals at the spring break practices for the women.) The first couple of games in the tournament they did well and won the two games. At the next game they stunk up the pool and I got so angry during that game that after the game was over I demanded they give me the Samurai headbands back As I was gathering the headbands one of my players, Clark Hellman, said, “I bet Samurais weren’t Indian givers.” Today that might not be politically correct but then it sure as hell was hilarious. The laughter was not aimed at the expense of Native Americans but at the expense of an English, German, and Native American coach – me.
One time after getting beat by Navy we noticed on the video that Navy’s 2 meter player was very low in the water and could be easily fronted and their best outside shooter was not very good at defending drives. I hoped we were to play Navy two more times once in the Conference Championship and once at Easterns, the NCAA qualifier. Since we ended up playing Navy for the Conference Championships and second in our Conference meant a ticket to Easterns, I decided not to show our hand and exploit Navy’s weaknesses in this game. The reason we didn’t was because Mike Scofield, the Navy coach, was an excellent coach and he would adjust to any changes we made now by Easterns.
First or second in our Conference Championships would give us a second or third place seed in Easterns and a rematch with Navy to see who goes to the NCAA Championships. Regardless of how we finished, Brown would be seeded first. Without exploiting Navy’s weaknesses they beat us again; however, when playing Navy in the semi-finals at Easterns and with an opportunity to go to the big dance, the NCAA Championships, we fronted Navy’s 2 meter player and we made the person that was defended by the best outside shooter the designated first driver.
Sure enough by the middle of the second quarter their best shooter had three fouls and was out of the game. Mike was so frustrated that we could front his 2 meter player he replaced him with another 2 meter player who was not near as good as his starter. Since the game was played at Navy, at the start of this game when Navy was ahead the Midshipmen were going wild and their yells were deafening. During the last quarter when we were ahead by three points the Navy crowd became very quite, and in the last 20 seconds you could hear a magic marker drop – the magic marker that lettered all their victory signs in the stands. Navy was on defense, so my goalie, Lee Betis, who was floating on his back began in this last 20 seconds to sing, very loudly “ California here we come”.
I would guess the saddest thing about our victory for Mike was that we were staying at his home sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags. In fact, if our roles were reversed I would not have come home that night either.
One more short story about Bucknell when we played them at their home pool. Bucknell fans would take into the stands of almost every home game a mini keg and a loud bell which they rang after every time they scored. At this particular home game we stifled their bell by only letting them score three points and by beating them for the first time at their home pool. After the game as I was running up the stairs to their stands to hug my wife, I overheard a fan discussing the game. I don’t know whether it was a knowledgeable fan or a fan who had been partaking suds from the mini keg because he said, “Bucknell polo has gone to the dogs; even Slippery Rock can beat us.”
Women’s Water Polo
This is another story about one of the best players, male or female, that I ever coached. I used stories about Lynn Comer-Kachmarik in many of my articles but never in a “Water Polo Travels with Doc” article. When Lynn was a freshman at the Rock she had only been playing on a club team for about six to nine weeks and her parents had never seen her play in a game. I might mention the club team she played for had won a Junior National Championships. Anyway I scheduled a game with the West Chester University men’s club team which was very close to her parent’s home.
Lynn was the first water polo player I ever had who was as aggressive and competitive as I was. Are we talking about the USAWP Hall of Famer and current member of the Board of Directors? I certainly am. Anyway, we were beating the West Chester club team and some of the players became upset so they became hackers, and the worst hacker of the bunch tried to get rough with Lynn. Well, Lynn gave him back more than he could handle from a female. This pillar of the hacker community and of the non-feminist clubs couldn’t take it anymore so he punched Lynn in the nose and the punch broke her nose. Paul Barren was refereeing at the time and he saw the punch so he blew his whistle and ejected the player who threw the punch and motioned for Lynn to come to the side of the pool.
I ran to the side of the pool and waiting for Lynn were Paul, her parents, and me. Lynn’s nose was not only bleeding but her nose looked as if someone had turned it clockwise by about 30 degrees. The first thing out of Paul Barren’s mouth was, “That’s not so bad we can still recognize you. Shoot, playing water polo I have had three or four broken noses that looked a lot worse than that!” I wanted to tell Paul thanks and to tell him the next dagger about Lynn’s nose could be plunged into my heart so I wouldn’t have to commit seppuku right here on the deck. Lynn’s parents, Bill and Dorothy Comer, didn’t say a nasty word to me nor did they say anything but encouraging words to Lynn. In fact, Bill and Dorothy became Lynn’s biggest water polo supporters and they became some of the biggest supporters of the Slippery Rock women’s team. They were always there when she and the team needed them.
The same thing happened to her in her sophomore year playing a Pittsburgh boys high school team. All this boys’ high school really had was a player who could swim a 100 yards in 49 seconds. All their goals were from counter attacks of this one player. I told Lynn to do nothing but shut down this player’s counterattack. This is in the days when chugging or hand fighting was allowed on defense. On their remaining transitions from defense to offense, Lynn would be in front of this fast swimming player chugging him to slow him down. After about the fourth or fifth time this player yelled, “Hey ref she can’t do this”, and the ref started chuckling and said in a loud voice, “Oh, yes she can!” We won the game and the fast swimming player rewarded Lynn with a nose breaking punch.
A few years later after Lynn graduated I called the coach of Millersville University’s men’s male club coach to see if my Slippery Rock women’s team could enter their tournament. He gave me a song and a no-penalty-shot dance about how many good men’s club teams he had coming to the tournament and that a women’s team couldn’t possibly beat any of them. I told him we weren’t looking for wins but that we were looking for some competition to prepare us for the National Championship. I didn’t tell him at this time there was not a women’s team on the east coast that could come within 10 points of our women’s team. I did tell him he would be doing a great service to women’s water polo on the east coast by helping us to do better in the Nationals and I meant what I said. I even told him he didn’t have to keep score of our games. Finally, he said we could come but that scores would be kept for our games.
To make a long story shorter than the last three minutes in an overtime quarter when your team is three points behind, the women ended up in the championship game against Millersville. The stands were flush with the pool deck and were completely filled with home team fans. These fans were holding placards and yelling words that would embarrass a drunken sailor – even a sailor without any non-profane words in his vocabulary. We beat them 8 to 4 or 5 and one of their players was so angry he punched our 2 meter player, Val Domingues, in the nose. Yep, your right; it also broke her nose. That is the last time my women’s team ever played a men’s team other than my own. It would be pathos to have to say that every ex-polo player with a crooked nose played for Slippery Rock.
Even with broken noses, injured rotator cuff, and other non-life threatening injuries my women players tried to sweet talk me into playing them in scrimmages and/or games. Most of the time I only let them practice in passing, shooting, and swimming drills. On the very few occasions they did play injured it was because I didn’t know they were injured. The exception was Lynn Comer-Kachmarik who played in a National Championship game after dislocating her shoulder in the semi final game, and I had permission to play her from her parents and the trainer from school at which we were playing. Today some hang nails will keep both male and female players from practicing and playing games.
I almost forgot the Women’s Nationals in Berkley, California at which I carried Erica Billish, or was it Kelly Billish, piggy back everywhere so she could rest her strained ankle and play in the games. As Archie Bunker the TV sitcom character would say and I would agree with, “Those were the days.”
The referees have it much better today than when I was an assistant coach for Texas A & M in the late 60’s. They had to suspend for a season the Texas A & M versus University of Texas games because the loser would always throw the referee in the swimming pool. Can you imagine that happening today? The team that did that would be tarred by the league's Commissioner and then feathered by the league's Board of Directors before the team was run out of water polo for a millennium.
In the days of one referee when Slippery Rock College used to play the University of Pittsburgh at home and an away game, the coach of the home team would always hire a home referee to do the game. A home referee is a referee that is either partial to the home team or a referee who interprets the rules the same way as the home coach interprets them. Since the University of Pittsburgh coach and several of the players were from Puerto Rico, they preferred to play physical which was the international style of play at that time. (Pitt had a great player by the name of Butch Silva who played on the Puerto Rico National team, and he emailed me the other day saying that the articles on WPP brought back fond memories of his playing days at Pitt. He lives in the Atlanta area and wants to get back into playing on a Master’s Team and coaching polo again. If you are interested in having Butch help your team then contact me and I will send him your email address.) Slippery Rock College on the other hand had a smaller, faster team, and wanted to play with less physical play and a quicker whistle which was the NCAA style of play at that time.
When we would play Pittsburgh at their pool they would have a home referee whose rule interpretations were along the line of, “No blood; No foul!” Consequently, we would always lose at Pitt. Now games at Slippery Rock College were another story. Because I would always get this local swim coach of a near by college who played water polo in college and who believed that being physical was cheating and playing dirty. He wouldn’t coach a team at his college because he thought there was too much cheating in the game at that time. Do I need to add that Pitt hardly ever won in our swimming pool?
One time at one of the home games, one of Pitt’s players got into a nasty fight with one of my players. The game was almost stopped, and after the game the Pitt coach and I both decided to stop having home referees at our games. From that time on we only used referees that we could both agree on. The name of the Pitt’s coach was Miguel Rivera and he and I became good friends. I learned a good deal about picks from Miguel.
There was a referee in the CWPA that nobody but me and Shelly Rothman, the coach at Queen’s College, really liked. People told me I was nuts for liking him because they said he was a terrible referee. I argued that I didn’t like the way he interpreted the rules but all you had to do was watch how he called the game in the first ten minutes of running time in the first quarter and you knew how he would call the entire game. In my mind he was the champion of consistency. Mostly coaches didn’t like him because he didn’t call many ejection fouls at 2 meters. His first name was Ed but for the life of me I can’t think of his last name. If anybody knows who I am talking about please send me his last name. Thanks to an email from David Alberstein I can give you the full name of the referee I was thinking about - Ed Palen. I might add that David was an excellent referee as well.
What is great about old stories such as these is that by the time you have stopped writing one story you will have thought about three more stories. My brain bucket must have a hole in it because I cannot ever get enough memories to fill it. It seems as if my long term memory is as long as the wall of China but my short term memory is as short as one of those string bikini bottoms women are wearing on the beach this summer. I am going to take this time to tell all those people who lived these stories that I am still thinking about them and that I am going to steal Bob Hope’s theme song and sing to them, “Thanks for the memories.”
(If the reader were to place his or her mouse pointer on my photograph then you would see me as I looked when many of these stories were actually happening. Also you will note that after the article was posted some player names have been added. When writing this article I had a "senior" moment and I couldn't recall the player names, but that moment has passed and I have started remembering the names so I added them. Isn't the live internet grand? It doesn't stop "senior" moments but it makes them superfluous. - Doc)
Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]