By VINNIE PORTELL
Four years ago, Sun Coast Water Polo was created to give kids in the Venice area a chance to play water polo at the competitive level. Beginning in the Venice SKY Family YMCA pool, players learned the ins-and-outs of water polo for the first time from coach Jon Baca.
Now after years of training, progress and team-building, Sun Coast Water Polo is ready to keep growing — partnering with the Venice SKY Family YMCA to form Hurricanes Water Polo, effective on Monday, July 1.
“I think the unique thing about this is pretty much everyone on my team has learned how to play water polo in this pool,” Baca said of the Venice YMCA pool.
As Sun Coast Water Polo has grown, the rest of southwest Florida has started to catch on, with Venice High even adding a boys and girls team to its athletics program in 2018.
Several members of the Indians’ water polo teams have also been a part of Sun Coast Water Polo and the additional exposure to the sport has turned Venice High into a contending playoff team.
This past season, both the boys and girls finished as district runner-ups — far out-pacing their one-win seasons from the year prior.
The Venice YMCA has rented out its pool for Sun Coast Water Polo practices over the years, and has taken note of the sport’s burgeoning popularity. So when Baca brought up the idea of bringing the two entities together, YMCA administrators were all ears.
“When Jon approached me about it, it was definitely something we wanted to do,” Venice YMCA director of aquatics Cory Kephart said. “Jon’s been doing a good job with it, but he just didn’t have the backing behind him. With the marketing the Y can do, and also associating with our competitive aquatics here, we just thought it was a really good match.”
The merger benefits Sun Coast because it opens up what Baca can offer to his players as far as instruction and availability.
Rather than continuing to be a one-man show, Baca is bringing on an intern coach as well as adding a “Novice” class and a 14-under class to allow younger and less experienced players to learn the game at their own pace.
“I’m really excited about the merger because we’re at about the four-year mark of Sun Coast Water Polo,” Baca said. “It was easy to be a one-man coach when everyone in the water was at the same spot. They could have been a fast swimmer or a slow swimmer. They could have been 16 or they could have been 10. But none of them knew anything about the sport.
“Now at the four-year mark, I’ve got three players going off to the junior olympics and I’ve got other kids just starting the program.”
For Baca, keeping the club team going is especially meaningful. Aside from having his triplets — Amelia, Wesley and Ian Baca — on the team, his own experiences in the pool as a kid are something he wants to replicate for the kids of Venice.
“What makes a team is not just what goes on in the water,” he said. “When these guys go to a tournament, they all know each other. They have confidence when they’re playing with each other that they wouldn’t have if you just threw 10 players together who might have their own talents, but don’t know how they work together.
“What I like is they do things socially outside of the pool. So, 20 years or 40 years from now when they get to be my age and look back to when they were a teenager, they can go, ‘Oh, wow, all of my friends from then were who I went through the trials and tribulations of water polo with.’”
Anyone interested in joining the newly formed YMCA Hurricanes Water Polo team can simply show up at the deck of the pool at the Venice YMCA for a Novice session.
Participants must be YMCA members, and pay a monthly fee depending on their skill level — $20 for novices, $40 for the 14-under group and $60 for the advanced sessions.
While the YMCA does offer statewide and national competitions in gymnastics, swimming and diving, water polo has yet to be added to its official competitive sports.
In the meantime, Hurricanes Water Polo will compete under USA Water Polo.
“I want people in the pool,” Kephart said. “I want kids in the pool. I think aquatics are an important life lesson that people need to learn early, and I don’t care if a kid is in the pool playing water polo or swimming, or anything else.
“I think we’re going to be one of the few areas that can promote both sports (water polo and swimming) equally.”