This Is What Water Polo Is All About!

Richard “Doc” Hunkler with a Lot of Help from His Friends
Water Polo Planet

There is gold in them there FINA World Master's Water Polo Aquatic Championships, and I am not talking about the gold you hang around a players neck on the medals platform at the end of the tournament. I am talking about the gold of friendship, loyalty, memories, and great present and past water polo times rediscovered by a group of former US Women's Senior National Team players and their coach at this years FINA World Master's Aquatic Championship. However if you are similar to many of the supporters of the US Men's Senior National Team and you just have to have gold medals then this story is also about how they won a gold medal in the 30 and over bracket with a team of women who all but one were in their early to late 40's.

Before the First Whistle

Let us start off with the cast of characters in this exciting water polo epic. They are as follows:

Laura Laughlin Baker played on US Women’s National Team for 13 years, 79-91
Theresa Breckon Bixby played on US Women’s National Team for 11 years, 81-91
Jenny Hohne Brooks played on US Women’s National Team for 1 year, 1987
Kelli Billish Fitter played on US Women’s National Team for 9 years, 83-91
Dion Gray played on US Women’s National Team for 11 years, 76-86
Megan Hernandez played on US Women’s National Team for 8 years, 84-91
Lynn Comer Kachmarik played on US Women’s National Team for 10 years, 77-86
Vaune Kadlubek played on US Women’s National Team for 11 years, 76-86
Maggi Kelly played on US Women’s National Team for 12 years, 85-94 & 97-98
Maureen O’Toole played on US Women’s National Team for 21 years, 77-94 & 98-02
Sandy Vessey Schnieder played on US Women’s National Team for 9 years, 84-92
Jocelyn Wilkie Sanford played on US Women’s National Team for 8 years, 86-93
Lynn Wittstock played on US Women’s National Team for 15 years, 84-98
Robbie Larson Bova (Assistant Coach) coach of Top 40 Teams, Assistant Coach ASU
Sandy Nitta (Head Coach) coached US Women’s National Team for 15 years, 80-94

Game Recaps or Why - Did Someone Lose a Cap?

Where should we start? On the first day they arrived at the Master’s Championship when Sandy Nitta gave them an exhausting 3 hour work out or on the second day when she gave them an equally hard 2 hour work out or on the day of the first game of the Tournament. Since we want to keep the player’s comments positive we had better start on the day of the first game. By the way the name of the their team is Team Vegas/Henderson. The game recaps will be narrated by Sandy Nitta, so here goes the tale of the first game in her own words:

There were three teams which were pretty equal and one team which was fairly new to water polo, so the team which finished 1st after the round robin games were played would have an easier path to the Gold Medal game. The two teams which ended up 2nd and 3rd would have to do battle to get into the Gold Medal Game.

Our first game was low scoring, with both teams playing great defense. At the beginning of the 4th quarter the score was Team Vegas/Henderson (TVH) 4 and CapistranoValley Aquatics Club (CVAC) 2. CVAC came out storming and scored after an offensive foul on TVH counter attack goal. CVAC then stole the ball from the top and scored another counter attack goal to tie the game at 4 – 4. CVAC’s last goal came after a kick out on a counter attack (Sandy gets her first ever yellow card) they set up their 6 on 5 and score. Ending the game 4-5 in favor of Capistrano

They lost? What did you expect the national players haven’t played together for 10 to 15 years? This game was to get all the kinks out. Well, not all the kinks because some of the kinks were starters. Remember all but one of the national players were in their early to late 40’s and the team they were playing were primarily in their 30’s. (I remember a FINA World Cup when I was Sandy’s assistant coach in Quebec and there was a really stinky call. All Sandy and I did was stand up and one of the referees told us if we stood up again that Sandy and I both would be asked to leave the deck, there were no yellow cards in those days.) Sandy’s narrative concerning the 2nd game continues:

Our second game was against California Classics a new team with new players from Northern California. The Classic players kept asking our players what should they have done? They also had the loudest cheering section at the tournament. Whenever they stopped a goal there were loud cheers and even louder cheers when they made a goal!! It was a fun game for both teams.

Everyone had so much fun there is really no need to mention the score. It appeared that teachers and pupils were quite satisfied with the role they played in this game. The stinko point system and the possibility of a tie caused Team Vegas/Henderson to have to run the score on the California Classics team. (One time in a US Women’s Collegiate National Championship in an easy game instead of running the score I played my seniors who had never played in a National Championship game. This gesture from the heart caused the team to play for 3rd instead of for 1st. From that point on I attempted to coach with my head instead of my heart.) The saga continues as Sandy explains:

Our third game was with Winnipeg Neptunes – on this team were several former Canadian national team players who were all 30 years young versus the 40 plus young players on Team Vegas/Henderson. Winnipeg’s heads up play with quick passes and quick shots from the top was too much for Team Vegas/Henderson and we lost another game by 1 goal – 5-6.

This was a disappointing game for the ladies because a win here could have caused a three way tie with Team Vegas/Henderson placing first based on goal differences. This meant the road to the gold medal game would not be paved with an easy second round game but rather it would be a knock down, drag them out of the pool game with Capistrano Valley Aquatics Club and the winner would play Winnipeg for all the marbles and the loser would play for a bronze medal.

Since Winnipeg was 1st in our bracket that would mean they would play California Classic and we had to match up with CVAC again. The winners of both games would advance to the Gold Medal game. Thus, the Semi Final Game with Team Vegas/Henderson playing CVAC was the game to watch.

We started off strong with a two-goal lead in the 1st quarter but Gubba Sheehy was too much for our defenders to handle. Gubba helped close the gap in the lead. At the end of the fourth quarter the game was tied 8-8 and it went into two 3 minute overtime periods of play. My thoughts were, “We can’t let this go to a shoot out – in this game alone we missed 2 or 3 Five Meter Penalty shots!!!” It took a real team effort at both ends of the pool, with some heads up play by all, to pull out a 11-10 win in over time play. This meant we were off to the Gold Medal game against the Winnipeg Neptunes.

What can I say but that the darlin’s of come-back and the queens of cool did it again – they won the close one that counts! When they played for the US Women’s National Team you could never count them out because it seemed they had an inner strength that caused them to win games no one but themselves and their coaches thought they could win. Like the young girl in the movie “Poltergeist”, we too can say, “There back!”, and just in time to play the excellent team from Canada. You all ready know the outcome of the gold medal game, so just sit back, take it easy, and let Sandy tell you about it.

The final game was like a dream; it felt like we were here so many times before; it felt like we just did this last summer; and it was very relaxing. Our team was lined up and ready for the sprint when Dion turns to me and says “Sandy, look how many people we have watching us.” The stands at Stanford were almost full. Mo says “Sandy, this is more people watching than any of the FINA World Cups we played in,” Vaune says “There is more people watching today than we had in all the FINA World Cups put together.”

The whistle blows and we are off with Jenny Hohne Brooks winning the sprint (we did not lose one sprint the entire tournament – thanks to Jenny and Lynn Wittstock). We got off to a fast start and after that we never looked back. Our defense was like a wall. We reacted to all most every advantage situation and we continually forced the offense to counter our defensive moves. Our offense was incredible because we scored from everywhere in the offensive end. We scored off drives, counter attacks, outside shots, and 6 on 5’s. Even our two meter play was on track with several strong goals from set (turns and shots). We won the game by a score of 10 to 3.

Towards the middle of the fourth quarter Vaune told me “Sandy give me your phone because they are going to throw you in”, so off went my phone, wallet, and keys. Towards the end of the game when both Laura and Mo were on the bench; Mo told Laura “We are going to get Sandy in the water” and Laura responded, “Sandy is going to play? Is that legal?” Well, I enjoyed that dip in the water more than you can imagine because it meant so much to me, and it meant so much to me because of the players I was with and because they finally got the gold. Not the kind of gold that's found in a first place medal but the kind that's found in fellowship and in a life time of womderful memories.

Team Meeting at the End of the Pool Deck

I know how much that meant to Sandy and the players because as Sandy’s assistant coach to the US Women’s Senior National Team I helped coach many of these same women in the 1983 and 1984 FINA World Cup where we finished 2 nd to the Netherlands and 2 nd to Australia. (In the Championship game with Australia we were in fantastic shape and Australia was not, but there was an hour break after the third quarter because of a shot clock malfunction. The Aussie’s got a second wind and beat us by one point but that is another story for a later article.) In my opinion and I am certain in Sandy’s opinion you cannot find a team that has players who are more devoted to each other, to their coaches, and to their role in the history of women’s water polo.

The title says is all, “This Is What Water Polo Is All About.” It is all about life long friends, life long loyalty, life long memories, and life long water polo experiences that are shared. The fact that they won the gold at the FINA World Master’s Championship was just the icing on the delightful cake called water polo because after all the medals are given out and all the accolades are said, it is the journey in water polo not the destination that makes it all worth while.

Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]