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High School Aquatics Teams Scramble For Practice Sites

While natatoriums sit vacant at Long Beach’s high schools, the water polo and swim programs have been seeking a venue to conduct conditioning workouts outdoors. Due to current health orders, high school teams are only permitted to conduct those sessions outside, but teams have had difficulty in recent weeks finding a place to make that happen.

For most of the summer, aquatics teams from Long Beach’s high schools have been working out in public waterways, from Colorado Lagoon through Alamitos Bay and down the Peninsula. However, that was all interrupted at the beginning of September, when schools were notified that they would no longer be allowed to utilize public waterways for practices without a permit. Furthermore, it was the decision of Long Beach’s Parks, Recreation and Marine Department to suggest moving all water polo practices to Marine Stadium, which carried a fee of $120 per practice to staff a lifeguard.

According to Parks, Recreation and Marine Director Brent Dennis, the city received complaints of local teams participating in competitive water polo games in public waterways, which is not a permitted activity.

“We have to base everything on the current health orders,” Dennis explained. “And what’s been happening, not just out in the area where the water polo teams were conducting matches, but on our soccer and baseball fields, the health order clearly says that conditioning and skills training is acceptable, but no competition.”

Dennis admitted that enforcement of the health order is a challenge and requiring a permit would make it easier for the city to identify violators of the protocols. Furthermore, it would also help ensure equal access to the waterways for all the schools.

Wilson High School Athletic Director Jeff Evans was initially contacted by Gabriel Cruz from Parks, Recreation and Marine, who informed Evans of the school’s need to permit any activities along the beach and in the bay. Evans explained that he’s worked closely with Cruz for years in order to use public park facilities like Joe Rodgers Field, but noted that using the city’s waterways has rarely been needed in years past.

Evans asserted that his coaches and athletes had been following the guidelines and were not engaging in any unauthorized activities, though his coaches did acknowledge that there were others flouting the rules while the team was practicing.

“I can say from Wilson’s standpoint, whenever our coaches held official team sessions, they were following protocols and doing exactly what we had in place,” Evans said. “As far as what other activities were going on down there, I know there were other kids down there playing, but those were not Wilson-authorized practices.”

According to Ishmael Pluton, the boys’ water polo coach at Poly High, his team has also been diligent in following health orders throughout the summer. After indoor practices were struck down in July, Pluton and the other water polo coaches agreed to take their practices out to the bay. He said that each team unofficially staked out their own area to practice, and the process was going well until the city’s permit requirement went into effect.

“We all had our own little areas,” Pluton explained. “We spent the whole summer doing conditioning workouts until last week when a message went out that we would need a permit to continue practicing.”

Pluton added that he had seen some club teams from outside the areas conducting scrimmages or playing games in the waterways, and that he observed the general public crowding the Bayshore area without masks. But similar to Wilson’s coaches, he said he’s been diligent with his team wearing masks at all times unless they’re swimming, while coaches wear masks at all times.

With the new need for permits, coupled with the poor air quality, the Jackrabbits haven’t been able to conduct a team practice in two weeks, just as the virtual school year has gotten underway.

“It feels like being punished for something someone else is doing,” Pluton admitted. “The timing was crushing because it was the start of school, and these kids more than anything, after staring at a screen all day, are going to need to exercise and move around. It was so crushing to tell my team, ‘Hey sorry guys, we’re going to have to do Zoom workouts this week because we don’t have water to practice in.’”

Fortunately, once the Long Beach Unified School District was brought into the discussion, the schools have been able to put together a solution that should allow teams to get needed time in the pool. Since many of the city’s water polo programs wouldn’t be able to afford daily rental fees at Marine Stadium, Moore League Secretary Lisa Ulmer and LBUSD Superintendent of High Schools Jay Camerino brought the league’s schools together on a conference call to figure out an alternate plan.

“The city didn’t want to decide who gets in and who doesn’t,” Evans said. “They wanted to have the district’s AD’s and schools come together to figure out what’s the best shared use plan. (The city) didn’t want to have eight permits and have to decide who to say yes to. At that point, everybody came together and said what they would want and we took it from there.”

Ultimately, Cabrillo High made their outdoor pool available as a solution, allowing the rest of the Moore League water polo programs to have a practice venue in the mornings and afternoons. Wilson and Millikan have both opted to pay the rental fee at the Belmont Pool, to take advantage of another outdoor facility.

After the tumult of the past few weeks, the schools are pleased to have what seems to be a steady plan moving forward, which hopefully can restore some normalcy for both coaches and students. According to Pluton, his players have taken the changes and cancelations in stride.

“It’s so impressive, at least from my perspective with my Poly kids, seeing their ability to adapt and adjust to what life is throwing their way right now,” Pluton said. “And the grace with which they do it is incredible, and nothing short of it. I’m really impressed with these kids.”

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Tyler Hendrickson
Tyler Hendrickson was born and raised in Long Beach, and started covering sports in his hometown in 2010. After five years as a sportswriter, Tyler joined the athletic department at Long Beach State University in 2015. He spent more than four years in the athletic communications department, working primarily with the Dirtbags baseball program. Tyler also co-authored of The History of Long Beach Poly: Scholars & Champions.