When the Denton school district’s water polo program was created in 1999, coach Chris Cullen and his teams struggled, to say the least.
With not many teams to face and improve against in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, building a successful program has taken some time.
Denton and Ryan were forced to combine forces to field a team big enough to compete against powerhouses at Southlake and Dallas St. Mark’s, but 15 years later Denton ISD water polo is flourishing along with the sport.
With the sport showing growth, the University Interscholastic League has decided to appraise its viability as a sanctioned sport.
On June 10, Cullen and Traci Neely, the UIL assistant athletic director for swimming and diving, joined coaches and superintendents from across the state in making a presentation the UIL’s Legislative Council Standing Committee on Policy.
Cullen and his colleagues detailed the sport’s progress and the feasibility of accepting water polo as the first new UIL-sanctioned sport since wrestling in 1999.
What came out of that meeting was a decision to survey the state’s superintendents on their likelihood of adding the sport if it is accepted by the UIL — a big difference from previous surveys.
“Typically they ask, ‘Should a sport be added as a UIL sport?’” Cullen said. “That’s what was asked for bowling, and that was a resounding no. They rephrased the question and now it is, ‘If UIL adds water polo, would you add it as a sport?’ I think that’s encouraging.”
The established programs and the availability of resources such as pools, goals, balls and caps at a host of schools around the state are two reasons that Cullen is optimistic about the sport being accepted, which could happen as early as October when the UIL meets again.
“It would be a smooth transition because we’ve been playing water polo in Texas for 40 years,” Cullen said. “We have a state governing body in TISCA [Texas Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association]. We run the state tournament. We have bylaws. There’s a lot of structure in place. It should be a smooth transition from a coach-run sport.”
If given a positive recommendation by the policy committee, the Legislative Council could approve the sport for UIL competition as early as the 2015-16 school year.
Cullen says there are plenty of ways water polo could be paid for, from adding the costs into the swimming budget to putting the financial burden on the teams.
If it’s accepted, schools could begin to put on UIL-sanctioned tournaments, which in turn would help pay for travel and tournament entry fees. It also would give districts more efficient use of their pools and natatoriums.
Cullen, who served as TISCA president from 2011 to 2013 and now serves on the board, has seen the sport transform over the years. In 2009, TISCA moved the water polo season from the fall to the spring to avoid the six-month swim season, allowing those athletes to compete in both sports.
“I thought it was essential,” Cullen said of the change. “If we were going to have any kind of growth — [and] growth leads to possible UIL recognition — then we’d have to move it to the spring, and since then we’ve gone from 40 or 50 schools to 115. There are lots of school districts that are allowing teams to play, and I’ve talked to a lot of schools that won’t play until they are UIL-sanctioned.”
Already rich in development in the Houston, Austin and San Antonio areas, the expansion of water polo in the Dallas-Fort Worth area has seen four club teams develop. Thunder Water Polo serves Denton, Flower Mound and Southlake, joining North Dallas Water Polo, Rockwall Water Polo and one based at St. Mark’s.
Eight athletes from the Denton district have gone on to play college water polo in the past five years, and Texas water polo has support from USA Water Polo.
“They are really strong advocates for us adding because they know how big Texas is and how the youth have grown,” Cullen said. “In the report [to the UIL], it showed that they’ve grown steadily over the past five or six years. The group that showed the most growth was the 12-and-under age group.”
Construction of the Denton Natatorium in 2003 was a huge boost to the Denton ISD program, and the enthusiasm of coaches and players has the sport where it is now.
“These first-year teams or younger teams will have better matchups, so we won’t get obliterated when they first start like we did,” Cullen said. “We were stubborn. We were terrible to start. It took two or three years to get a victory because there were so few teams in the area [and they] were far better than us.
“It just speaks to the passion of the kids. They kept at it. There was no quit. They didn’t want to be the worst team. It’s been a process. We didn’t even know the rules.”
Denton, Ryan and Guyer now are forces to be reckoned with.
In 2009, the Guyer boys and girls and the Ryan girls advanced to the 16-team state tournament, with the Lady Raiders defeating Southlake for their first North Region championship.
This season, the Denton boys took fifth place at state, with the Denton girls and Ryan boys tying for ninth in their divisions.
Cullen said water polo has been a huge factor in the retention of athletes in the swimming program, and that he hopes that if water polo is added it will give more students an opportunity to find a passion.
“It would give some legitimacy to the sport,” Cullen said. “We would have some publicity. We would have coverage in the newspaper. To see more schools and more competition is great. I want the whole sport to be better. If we win over and over and over again, it doesn’t matter. If I can make my competition better, then we have to be better. I know it’s worked for St. Mark’s. The overall play from 10 years ago to now is far superior.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.