Water Polo Planet Hall of Honor for the 70's
Pioneer Women Water Polo Players in the U.S.

Introduction by Chuck Hines, Asheville, North Carolina

As women’s water polo entered the decade of the 1970s, there were still no varsity teams for the ladies at any high schools or colleges.  That’s NOWHERE in the entire country.  None.  Zero.  Nada.  Zip.  Title IX was passed by Congress in 1972.  This was a law that required schools receiving federal aid, which was most of them, to provide equal opportunities for women and girls in athletics and other activities.  Naturally, the men rebelled.  Well, not all of them, but the vast majority.  Male athletic directors at major universities, where football was king, took Title IX to court, and while almost every judge sided with Congress, it took half-a-dozen years for the new law to be enforced.

In the meantime, it was the AAU that continued to promote women’s and girls’ water polo, with a helping hand from the YMCA.  I’d been re-elected as chair of the AAU women’s water polo committee, serving from 1970 through 1976.  We used our new Junior Olympic program to introduce water polo to younger girls.  There was just a single age group, 15-and-under, and teams had to qualify for the annual JO Championships by winning in regional competition.  Thus the number of teams advancing to the Championships was quite small, and the winning entries were Portland, Oregon, in 1969; Sheridan Swim Club of Quincy, Illinois, in 1970; Coral Gables, Florida, in 1971; Asheville YMCA from North Carolina in 1972; Northern Virginia Aquatic Club in 1973; Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1974; and Tucson, Arizona, in 1975.  The AAU’s Junior All-Americans were chosen each summer based on the results of the JO Championships.

Three of the aforementioned teams – Coral Gables, Asheville, Tucson – and one other strong JO entry – North Dade YMCA of Florida – went on to achieve success in Senior Women’s competition in the 1970s.

As there were no collegiate women’s teams, the so-called Senior Nationals were dominated by older teenaged girls.   Some of the best kept playing until they were 20, 21 years of age, but it was rare to find anyone older.   Many of the best players in the 1970s were also star swimmers, including a number of Olympians.  The game itself was fast-paced and much less “physical” than the game being played now-a-days.  Most goals came on quick counterattacks, and when that didn’t happen, the ball was fed into the hole set, whom the refs generally protected and permitted to shoot.  The average number of kickouts resulting in 6-on-5 advantage situations was maybe 10 per game, and that’s on both teams combined.   

The south Florida teams led the way nationally in the early ‘70s.  The Palmetto Barracudas from Miami,  coached by Vince Santostefano, won the 1971 Senior Indoors, actually held outdoors at the U. of Miami pool, and then it was Coral Gables, coached by Cullen Bullock and Bill Burrell, that jumped to the top.  After copping the Junior Olympics in 1971, the Gables girls won the Senior Indoor and Outdoor Championships in 1972 and 1973. 

The North Dade YMCA from Miami, coached by Mike Burdges, upset the field to take the 1974 Out-doors, and the Cincinnati Marlins, coached by Charlie Hickcox, led the way at the 1974 Indoors. 

Then Coral Gables and North Dade combined into a single unit called North Miami to grab the gold at the 1975 Outdoors, edging the Asheville YMCA in the latter’s pool.

At the 1976 Senior Indoors, Asheville and Slippery Rock University, coached by Doc Hunkler, played to a 2-to-2 tie in the title tilt.  Doc was the first person to develop a successful collegiate women’s water polo program, and his ladies, competing from coast to coast in the 1970s-80s-90s, compiled a remarkable record of 142 victories against only 11 losses.  

The year 1976 marked the end of my term as the AAU’s chair for women’s water polo.  I was replaced by Californian Flip Hassett.  The California clubs, which had been knocking at the door for several years, suddenly burst through and won the Senior Outdoors in 1976, 1977 and 1978.  First it was the Anaheim/ FAST team coached by Stan Sprague, then the Fresno/Merced team coached by Flip Hassett, and finally the Commerce club coached by Sandy Nitta.  Just for good measure, the Long Beach ladies, coached by Kelly Kemp, copped the Senior Indoors twice.  The cutting edge of women’s water polo, which had started in the Midwest in the early 1960s and then shifted to the East Coast in the late 1960s and then to the South in the early 1970s, had now shifted to the West in the late 1970s, where it remains today. 

Aside from the teams already mentioned, there were 60 others scattered across the country during the 1970s.  Those from Fort Lauderdale, Nashville, Lexington, Chicago, and Houston come to mind as being among the best.  But the big news was the expansion of women’s action internationally.  Teams from the Eastern U.S. and Canada played each other in 1975, 1976, and 1977, and at a competition conducted by the Canadians at Montreal and Quebec City in the spring of ‘77, the experienced Dutch team from Hilversum, averaging 28 years of age, came and conquered the much younger U.S. and Canadian clubs.

This was followed by a six-team international tournament at Asheville directed by this writer and a much larger international tourney hosted by Sandy Nitta and Commerce, California, with sixteen club teams entered from five countries.  The talented Ste-Foy team from Quebec City, Canada, finished first in both. 

Then, during the third World Aquatic Championships held at Berlin, Germany, in 1978, national women’s water polo teams representing five countries competed in an exhibition. The Netherlands took top honors with Australia second, the U.S. third, Canada fourth, and Germany fifth.   This convinced FINA that women’s water polo was indeed a viable sport.  Thus in 1979, the first formal FINA-sanctioned World Cup Championships for women were conducted at Merced, California, under the supervision of Flip Hassett.  The U.S. won the gold medal. 

Meanwhile, at the junior level, the Floridians remained strong, and a girls’ team from Miami captured the Junior Olympics. 

Title IX was finally being enforced by the courts, and hundreds of new teams and programs for women and girls sprung up in high schools and colleges in every corner of the country.  The Amateur Sports Act was then passed by Congress, and as a result, the AAU and YMCA relinquished control of water polo.  A new organization called U.S. Water Polo, Inc., assumed command.  This is the organization still governing the sport today, 30 years later. 

With all this occurring in the late 1970s – the enforcement of Title IX, the creation of a new governing body in the U.S., the globalization of the sport for women – the pioneer era of women’s and girls’ water polo came to an end.   Last month we announced “the best 60 from the ‘60s.”  Below we list “the best 70 from the ‘70s.”  Once again, we want to be as inclusive as possible, so if we’re forgotten any deserving player, please let us know. 

So here's our list of THE BEST from the 1970s:

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