The Farrington High School girls water polo team lost every game this year. They have only the minimum number of team members — seven — on the roster, so if one player gets sick, they have to forfeit. They can’t practice on campus because the Farrington pool has been empty and abandoned for years. Some of the girls can barely swim.
But when their season ended this week (in another loss), their coach couldn’t have been prouder.
"They never gave up," said Eric Polivka, 32, a Farrington history teacher. "They were always trying their hardest, even if they were 10 strokes behind. You couldn’t ask for anything more."
Polivka played water polo for Mid-Pacific Institute in the late ’90s. All those lessons in focus, discipline, endurance and teamwork were things he wanted to share on the Farrington campus.
"My best memories of high school were playing water polo," he said. Farrington is such a big school, he was sure he’d be able to put together a team without much trouble. But it was a struggle.
"I held meetings, I put fliers all over the campus, I recruited from the swim team. This was a year and a half in the making," he said.
He started out with 14 girls, few of whom were experienced swimmers.
"They could keep their heads above water, put it that way," he said.
Half the team quit right away. Water polo demanded more of them than they had to give. The rest hung in even though, especially in the beginning, the games were gruesome.
"The first game, two girls were throwing up in the pool. One girl was so tired she was just floating on her back, drifting around the water while the game went on around her," Polivka said.
Because there are only seven girls on the team, there are no substitutes. The girls have to play the entire game. One of their first goals was just being able to swim for that long and not cling on to the side of the pool gasping for air while the other team scored point after point.
The team is also woefully undersized.
"Water polo is a big person’s sport," Polivka said. "Players are usually tall and muscular."
A good size for a high school girls water polo player is around 5 feet 9 inches. Most of Farrington’s players are barely over 5 feet and one is 4 feet 9.
"She’s so little some of the opponents confuse her for the ball," Polivka said.
Most of the Farrington girls can’t touch the bottom of the pool.
"It’s harder for me to grab the ball from my opponents because I’m much shorter than they are," said senior Marilyn Ganuelas, 18 years old and 5 feet 1. "The tall players easily grab the ball from you."
But something started happening during all those winless hours in the water. Their efforts didn’t win games, but the team began to gain a measure of respect.
If one of the girls was sick and they had to forfeit a game, Polivka would ask the other team if they could still play, just for practice. The opponents would oblige, even lending Farrington some players so they could learn from more veteran athletes. After a while, Polivka noticed that the fans on their opponents’ teams were cheering for them. It is a wondrous thing to see kids who can’t possibly win try their best anyway.
OIA water polo referee Daniel Pollard couldn’t help but marvel at the Farrington team. He contacted the Star-Advertiser to suggest a story about them.
"I have refereed high school water polo in Hawaii for the last 10 or 11 years and they are about the worst team I have ever seen," Pollard said. "But that is what is so incredible about them in my estimation … the level of courage it takes to play a sport like water polo, when you barely have enough to fill out the team, all your players are very much smaller than the other team, many can only barely swim, is amazing."
Polivka said, "They never once said, ‘We suck.’ They got in the water with smiles on their faces and they said, ‘Let’s really try.’"
Every day after school, the girls caught the city bus to downtown Honolulu, where they practiced for two hours at the YWCA pool. The Y gave the team a discount, and Polivka arranged for a sponsor to pay for their membership. Since this is the team’s first year, there were a lot of startup costs: suits, caps, balls, T-shirts, goal nets. Polivka hit up his friends and family for donations.
"I tried to do it all myself and not really worry the girls. I wanted to keep them focused on water polo," he said. "They are good kids who work hard and I didn’t want them to go out and scrape for a goal or some caps."
The season may have been winless, but it was not scoreless. In their fifth game, on March 17, the Farrington girls scored their first point of the season in a 2-1 loss to Aiea. They still lost the game, but Ganuelas called it "the best moment" of her water polo career.
Farrington played Castle on Wednesday in the last game of the year. Castle won 14-7. It didn’t matter that the other team scored twice as many points as they did. For Farrington, it was that they swam the entire time without subs, put seven points on the scoreboard and had a good time doing it.
"I enjoyed every minute of it," 4-foot-11 team captain Ashley Cambe said. "Our team did not win, but to see how much our team has grown is enough to make us feel like winners."
Polivka is hoping to build on this inaugural season. He looks forward to next year thinking it won’t be quite so rough. "The team scored a page in the yearbook, which is a huge recruitment tool," he said.
He’s treating his players to an end-of-year dinner. "They’re bugging me to go to Cheesecake Factory, but really, anything outside of Kalihi and they’re really excited." They don’t have a winning season to celebrate, but they have other ways of measuring victory.
"I might shed a tear," Coach Polivka said. "Maybe a few tears. They’re such good girls. Probably I’ll cry so much I could fill up the Farrington pool."
Lee Cataluna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.