Club Water Polo Team is Ready for Nationals

In the world of professional sports, the idea of an expansion team competing for a championship in its second year of existence would be absurd.

The realm of collegiate club sports, however, is quite another thing.

Just ask the U’s women’s water polo team.

When the Collegiate Water Polo Association holds its national championship tournament in Atlanta from May 2 through 4, the Utes will be one of 12 teams vying for the title.

“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to play for a college championship,” senior goalie Heidi Hanson said. “Getting involved with this team has been one of the best things I’ve done in my college career.”

Even though Hanson and her 19 teammates must pay “for all their trips” and struggle to get practice time at the Steiner Aquatic Center, according to coach Larry Jackson, they’re all equally glad just for the opportunity to play competitively on this level.

After all, 90 percent of the athletes originate from Utah and the rest come from California?two states that boast strong water polo programs on the high school level?but most never had opportunities to play competitively beyond 12th grade until last year.

Finally, so many women approached Jackson, who has coached high school swimming and water polo for the past eight years and also teaches an intermediate water polo class in the U’s exercise and sport science department, that he felt compelled to get a team going.

As a sport with solid support and a growing following, Jackson reasoned that the U could support a club team.

“It’s [a sport that’s] been around forever?it was the first-ever Olympic team sport, and it helps that in these past [summer] Olympics, the U.S. got the silver medal,” he said. “Now, water polo is one of the fastest in getting picked up as a varsity sport [at universities].”

And while it remains a club sport at the U, proof of its popularity is evident, as the team went from “11 or 12 last year” to “about 30 athletes when we started this February.”

Meanwhile, though the substantial financial commitment forces players like Hanson to get a second job “teaching swimming lessons on the side to pay for it,” even after three years away from the sport, progress is evident as well.

After finishing second in the Pacific Coast division last year, the Utes won this year’s Southwest Division, clinching the title?and an automatic berth into the championship tournament?by knocking off previously unbeaten Air Force.

Now, the Utes are vying for the title, though they’ll first need to go through pool-play opponents UCLA, Cal-Poly and Purdue to get to the championship match.

It’s a tough scenario.

But then, as just a second year team, maybe the Utes are too new to know they’re not supposed to be there to begin with.

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