Soaking up exposure

There is something big growing in the pool of the USF Recreation Center.

The USF Water Polo Club team is making a splash that is beginning to catch the eye of many.

USF water polo started its sixth season in August as the team traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., to compete in the Hillbilly Classic. With a mixed squad of USF students and alumni, the Bulls finished 1-3 against other club teams.

Club sports aren’t funded by USF athletics and cannot use the USF logo, but are co-ed with no age restrictions for members.Membership is also open to non-USF students.

Sophomore Nick Orletsky has played for the Bulls since September 2005 and realizes that water polo is rapidly gaining popularity at USF.

“We’ve been able to recruit a lot of players this year, and our players are becoming more dedicated,” Orletsky said. “This team has improved a lot and to keep improving just needs to compete more against other teams. I’m amazed at how much this team has come along. It’s a really good group of people here, and I have made many new friends.”

Players must be able to swim 200 yards within four minutes to make the Bulls’ water polo squad. A maximum of 16 players are allowed to travel with the team for a tournament, and there are 30 players on the Bulls’ roster.

In water polo, there are seven players and a goalie in the water at a given time for each squad. A regulation-size water polo pool is approximately 10 feet deep, 25 yards wide and 33 yards long.

The game consists of four seven-minute quarters. Similar to basketball, players set screens. There is also a 35-second shot clock, during which a team must set up an offense and attempt a shot.

The goal is three meters wide by one meter long. With the exception of a goalie, players can only touch the ball with one hand.

In her first year at the helm for USF water polo, coach Gabriella Keri has the Bulls on the right track. The team is set to host its Spring Break Invitational in April and hosted the Club Collegiate Nationals in 2003. The team practices two days a week at the Rec Center and plays its home games in an Olympic-size pool at the Long Center in Clearwater.

An all-men’s team from Hungary is scheduled to compete in USF’s annual spring tournament.

“I know how these international teams play, and even out-of-state teams are difficult to compete against,” Keri said. “The more exposure we get to different styles of water polo, the more we will continue to improve ourselves.”

However, the Bulls have their eyes set on something much bigger than just being a competitive club program.

“I see the possibility, and I really hope that water polo can become an official USF sport,” Keri said. “That would be our ultimate goal and is something that can happen in the next three years.”

Orletsky said getting varsity status isn’t his biggest concern.

“I’m not thinking about that right now,” he said. “We’re not traveling enough, and we need to play against more competition.”

If the Bulls fail to become an official USF sport in three years, Keri and her coaches want to eventually win the Club Nationals.Next year, the Bulls’ main goal is to host two tournaments and compete in a total of seven.

“I want next year’s wins to be convincing because I want people to know that we are for real,” Keri said. “I want my players to be proud of themselves and happy to be a part of this growing program. We need to keep improving. If we can compete with out-of-state teams next year, then that will really say something for how far we have come.

“These players have put in so much time trying to learn the game, and our goal as of now is to win at least half of our games next season.”

There are no Division-I water polo teams in Florida, and Villanova is the only Big East school with a D-I squad.

A season is spread throughout the entire school year, and the Bulls would play about 35 games next season if they were to compete in seven tournaments. A typical D-I team plays an average of 40 games per season despite only playing from January until May.

“I want to have as much exposure for my team as I can,” Keri said. “We don’t have tryouts because I want more people to get involved with what we are doing. I am optimistic about getting our school’s name out next year so that we continue to improve with more funding.”

Keri both played and coached at Cal State Eastbay, which has a Division-III water polo team. As a senior, she led the Lady Pioneers to a second-place finish at the Club Nationals. Her love for the game has spread to the hearts of her players, and only time will tell whether the Bulls will begin to swim in the right direction.

“I’m only a volunteer coach, and all I can ask of my players is to work hard,” Keri said. “I try to stay friendly with my players because building trust and team character are essential to success. I like to win, but I will not sacrifice my principles or good character for the sake of winning.”

The Bulls’ plan for next season is to win at least half their games, which says a lot for a team that has to buy its own uniforms and pay its own way into tournaments. Fifteen players make up the core of a USF squad – including some who didn’t even know how to swim when they joined the team.

“Water polo takes a lot of determination because there are a lot of ups and downs throughout the course of a game,” Keri said. “Coming to practice to work hard is the first step toward becoming a good player. This sport is just so fun to play. I do it so my players can continue to learn and grow as water polo players.”