Benefield: Cardinal Newman boys water polo playing in a bigger pond
The Cardinal Newman boys water polo team is 6-1 overall, 2-0 in the Vine Valley Athletic League and has scored 97 goals while allowing 34.
It’s a pretty good early-season resume. So when asked what the team is working on, where their soft spots might be, Cardinals coach Matt McDowell had an odd answer.
“Newman is not strong at swimming,” he said.
“Most water polo teams, everyone swims in the spring and they play water polo in the fall,” he said. “We have a lot of players who play lacrosse and then play water polo. We are traditionally very slow.”
So what does that mean in the course of a game? This team has to play smarter. If they lose possession and are caught out of position, they will never win the race to the other end of the pool, McDowell said.
“If we get in a swim meet with another team, we are at a huge disadvantage,” he said. “We are not going to take too many risks.”
To that end, he’s almost constantly working on his team’s swimming legs. On Monday, at the second of the team’s two practices, he had players running drills and doing half-pool live-action plays all while wearing 12-pound weight belts. During breaks in the action, swimmers were told to grab a jug.
This meant pulling an empty five-gallon water jug from the pool deck, submerging it in the water until it was full, then lifting it above their heads while swimming in place — until the water drained out. A quick Google search tells me that a five-gallon water jug filled to the brim weighs 41 pounds. It was painful to watch, let alone accomplish.
When senior and team captain Bennett Stafford let slip a curse word while doing his jug, McDowell told him to finish that one and do an additional. Stafford just smiled and pushed jug No. 2 under the water.
When asked later about the prospects of the squad and team goals this season, Stafford talked about focus and always pushing for a little bit more.
“As a captain and a leader, I need to be hard on them because I know what they are capable of,” he said. “When they are slacking off, I need to go up to them and remind them why we are here and what we are working towards and that is ultimately to win NCS.”
And every Cardinal in the pool knows that will be no easy feat this season. Yes, they are the defending champions in the North Coast Section’s Division 2, but as a congratulatory gift, the team was bumped up to Division 1 this year.
It’s a prospect that is both exhilarating and a wee bit scary.
“It’s a little intimidating because I feel like we are a smaller school,” senior Gavin Homer said. “We have a smaller team compared to all the other teams.”
But Homer said the Cardinals are seasoned. They lost only a couple of players from the team that went 24-3 overall and 11-1 in the VVAL for a share of the league title with Vintage and won the school’s first NCS title in water polo. That earned them a ticket to the NorCal tournament, only to have competition canceled because of poor air quality from last fall’s deadly wildfires.