FORNEY — Callie Orozco was a student at Gunderson High School in San Jose, Calif., when the CIF introduced women’s water polo as a high school varsity sport.
A volleyball player by trade, Orozco knew nothing about the sport when she joined the inaugural team that spring.
Orozco is experiencing a looping moment nearly 27 years later. While UIL sponsors water polo at the university level for the first time, Orozco now coaches the first-ever boys’ and girls’ water polo teams in Forney and North Forney.
“I saw what it was accumulating for me, and I can do it for these kids,” Orozco said. “To be able to do this for them is really exciting because I know how powerful this sport is mentally and I know physically how much they will grow.”
Forney and North Forney, along with Highland Park, are the three Dallas-area water polo programs that jump straight to the college level in the first year the sport is offered. Other local schools, and most state schools, previously had club teams that competed in a third-party organization.
Water polo, which was previously played in the spring in Texas, kicked off its first UIL season last Monday with teams cleared to begin play this week. Only 6A is contested this year, and the Dallas area has 22 of more than 150 schools vying for a state title.
Although this is the first year of all three programs, Forney and Highland Park Schools are in two very different situations. Highland Park has players with water polo experience; some of their athletes have already played on a consolidated Dallas team at the high school level.
No one on Forney or North Forney has ever played water polo before this summer.
“The first time I walked in, I was really nervous,” Forney freshman Izzy Romero said. “It was new to everyone, and everyone felt a bit the same.”
That didn’t stop students from trying out the new sport. While North Forney is still building his roster, Forney drew a huge turnout of 26 athletes for the first two practices. By comparison, Hebron had only nine athletes in its first team in 2018 and now 42 students attended the first day of trials last Monday.
The students who play water polo for both Forney schools come from a variety of sporting backgrounds.
Some swimmers have made the jump from swim teams to play water polo. Some are team sports athletes looking to play another sport. Some students who haven’t played organized sports are looking for something new.
A common thread between the players is a lack of knowledge about water polo before knowing the team.
“I’ve never heard of the sport,” said North Forney rookie Stephanie Irigoyen. “And then when I heard about it, I was like, ‘Oh, I really like that. “”
As a result, the first week of practice for Forney and North Forney was learning and teaching the fundamentals. Orozco is focused on preparing teams for their potential first game in two weeks.
Water polo involves two teams attempting to score goals by throwing a soccer ball into a net. The sport, which is similar to football and basketball, is very physical. Each team has six outfield players and a goalkeeper, all of whom must tread water the entire time they are in the pool. College games are divided into four seven-minute quarters. The length of the playing field varies from pool to pool, but is generally 25 meters long with a maximum width of 20 meters.
The range of scores may vary depending on the matchup. The final score in the spring men’s club championship was 12-9, while the girls’ final was 5-4.
With no one to demonstrate the techniques, Orozco wears a bathing suit to practice and sometimes goes into the pool herself to show her players what to do.
“Everybody’s kind of on the same playing field, no matter what you’ve done before,” Forney senior Blane Duplissey said. “It’s a new game, a new sport. It’s really exciting for a lot of people, including me, because it’s a chance to prove yourself.
The students also have different skill levels in swimming, so there has been a lot of skill development on learning strokes as well.
Lay the foundations
The decision to start the water polo program was a fluke for Forney ISD. The neighborhood’s new aquatic center opened this year, giving them easy access to the pool area. Add to that a former Orozco High School water polo player on staff to coach the teams, and Forney decided to go all-in.
Having a home aquatic center is arguably the most important key to starting a high school water polo team.
Dallas-area coaches say starting and running a high school water polo team isn’t that expensive — if you have your own aquatic center and don’t have to rent pool time elsewhere. Without that concern, Highland Park coach Chris Cullen said most of the spending was on equipment, gear and merchandise.
“If you have a pool, the costs are minimal,” said Cullen, who coached water polo in the area for more than 20 years. “Probably less than $10,000. It would be high end if you don’t have the equipment.
Each of Forney’s students mentioned different goals they had for their first water polo seasons. Duplissey hopes to build a solid foundation that future teams can build on. Forney’s fellow senior Cody Burns wants to help with athlete recruitment and growing interest in the program. Forney senior Emma Bollin, who didn’t play sports in high school until she started water polo this summer, hopes to be a starter.
But when it comes to games, they all want to win.
“I know you win some, you lose some,” Bollin said. “I really hope we win some.”
Forney and North Forney are in District 5 along with Rockwall, Rockwall Heath, Nacogdoches and Texarkana Texas. There are 29 districts in total spread over four regions, with Districts 1, 2, and 3 strictly reserved for Dallas-area teams. Region I extends from Denton to the Houston area. Forney and North Forney, except when they meet this year, are unlikely to be favorites in many of their matches.
But Orozco hopes to build a culture where it doesn’t matter to his teams.
Orozco remembers playing high school volleyball against future three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings. Walsh Jennings was the top high school player in the country — “we all knew who she was,” Orozco said. When Gunderson played the school of Walsh Jennings, Orozco entered the match with the mindset that she was going to block Walsh Jennings.
“And I did – once,” laughed Orozco.
Some athletes would have caved to someone with Walsh Jennings’ pedigree. But Orozco was not afraid. She rose to the challenge before her – literally and figuratively – and now she can proudly say she’s blocked one of the greatest volleyball players of all time.
This is the attitude Orozco hopes to instill in its teams and the approach they take for the season.
“Where can we go but up? That’s what I keep thinking,” Orozco said. “There’s no way to go back from where they were. It’s only up.
The 2022 UIL water polo season kicked off last Monday and will conclude with the state championship at the end of October. Here’s a look at some of the key dates for the three-month season:
August 1: First day of practice
August 8: Potential first day of games
October 11: Bi-District
October 15: Area
October 18: Regional quarter-finals
October 22: Regional Tournament
October 29: State Championship
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