Athena Ayers began her swimming career with the Brentwood SeaWolves at the ripe age of six. Five years later, Ayers joined Lamorinda Brentwood, a local water polo team formed in partnership with the SeaWolves.
Describing the switch as “new and exciting,” Ayers’ five-year journey has met with success for the Liberty High junior, the latest honor, being named to the 2022 All-BVAL girls water polo team and named the Bay Valley Most Valuable Player.
“The bond you get to form with your teammates and the aggression of the game makes it thrilling and exciting,” said Ayers, now 16. “There’s a lot of swim training involved, reviewing water polo drills and plays, and watching film. You have to have strong legs, so the eggbeater and lunges are important to practice. You have to have quick decision making, and you constantly have to make choices during the game under pressure and with the clock running against you.”
Water polo players can attest to its grueling nature, infrequent rest, and need for endurance, describing it as “tremendously difficult” and a “full body workout.” Tactically similar to soccer, basketball, and hockey, water polo merges elements of those three sports, but is played in the water. Water polo players have to continually tread water, sprint back and forth, defend and guard constantly while making drives to the goal and escaping defenders.
“Athletes must be in extraordinary physical shape,” said Lamorinda Brentwood Program Director Jack Doria. “The biggest physical challenge in water polo is that athletes must tread water and swim the entire time they are in the game, while being held, pulled, and boxed out with the body. Games consist of four quarters and teams compete to score goals.”
Lamorinda-Brentwood is a USA Water Polo program that began in 2008 under the Brentwood SeaWolves name. In spring of 2017, they partnered with Lamorinda Water Polo Club and formed Lamorinda-Brentwood. According to their website, Lamorinda-Brentwood is committed to growing the sport of water polo and creating an atmosphere for team and individual growth in sportsmanship, excellence in athletics, and personal integrity. Over the next three summers, the number of athletes tripled in their program from approximately 60 to nearly 200.
According to Doria, the COVID-19 pandemic set them back on their growth trajectory, but they are steadily building back up.”We were very excited about the success of the club in the tournaments on January 7th and 8th. We sent five teams that went a combined 10-0. We were obviously quite excited about the success. However, our goal is to develop all of our athletes so wins and losses are less of a concern in some tournaments.”
Additionally, Doria says that Lamorinda just finished another set of tournaments on the weekend of Jan. 21-22, sending seven teams that went a combined 5-9. The 16 and under (16u) and 18 and under (18u) boys and girls teams competed at the Frozen Cup, a prestigious tournament in Pleasanton and Concord, with the 16u girls winning on Saturday Feb. 4.
Additionally, the 12u (coed) and 14u (boys and girls) age groups competed in the Sacramento Invitational weekend tournament on Sunday Feb. 5, with the 12u coed team defeating Cal Republic Red 13-3. Doria said they have many athletes who play in more than one age group, so many times, athletes are playing against older competition.
“Not nearly the same in terms of win and loss, but as an example, our 14 and under (14u) girls played in the 16 and under (16u) age group and went 1-1,” said Doria. “The number of athletes that play at any one time depends on the age group: 10u plays 5 versus 5, four field players and a goalie for each team, 12u plays 6 versus 6, 14u through 18u play 7 versus 7.”
When Ayers is not defending, sprinting, or attacking, she is also volunteering for the Splashball program every season, which is an introductory version of water polo from March 19 to May 21 with registration now open. Looking ahead, Ayers has expressed a desire to continue playing water polo in college, and is looking at different options.
“My goals are to work hard and train daily,” added Ayers. “Hopefully I can make it into a Division 1 school to play water polo.”
Another local high school player has excelled in the sport. Goalie Ryan Ackerman, who has been with Lamorinda Brentwood for four and a half years, says he fell in love with the sport after joining in 2018.
Ackerman won junior varsity MVP last year and the most improved player for the Heritage High varsity this year for a team that has won two BVAL championships.
He said he enjoys the thrill of a close game in the fourth quarter, the drive to compete, and the friendships made. Similar to Ayers, Ackerman envisions playing water polo after high school, hoping to reach at least junior college with water polo.
“My older siblings signed up before me and my parents saw this as a great new sport for me to play and I fell in love with it,” says Ackerman, a sophomore at Heritage. “It is completely different than other sports. You can use size or athleticism to help a lot where water polo is just technique and strength. Water polo is like a mixture of rugby and soccer. For the normal field player, there are lots of swim, conditioning and working on ball handling drills. As a goalie, I work a lot on my leg strength really helping me get out of the water and my arm. “If you’re good at swimming, you’ll have a great head start with water polo.”
Registration is open for the Lamorinda Brentwood spring season. It begins on Sunday, Feb. 19 at Liberty High School. Practice will then alternate between Liberty and Heritage high schools, and take place every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Summer season will begin on Sunday, May 21.
“I think it’s important to highlight the team as a whole,” added Doria. “We have athletes with many years of experience to some that are beginning this season. All work tremendously hard to improve and perfect their craft while developing team culture. We focus on positivity and fun while putting in maximum effort.”
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