Men's water polo has been a Cal powerhouse for a generation, winning 11 national titles in 26 years. Last year, women's water polo made a big splash in its own right. After 15 years as a club sport, the team came within one game of the national championship in its very first year as an intercollegiate varsity sport.
The main reason for this amazing success story is head coach Maureen O'Toole, recruited to lead the team in its inaugural season. Undoubtedly the greatest player in the history of women's water polo, she's a 15-time MVP of the U.S. national championships, a six-time world MVP, and a four-time national U.S. Olympic Committee Sportswoman of the Year. Retiring after the 1994 world championships, she vowed to come out of retirement if women's water polo becomes an Olympic sport in 2000. "It's looking pretty good," she said.
O'Toole is one of very few full-time women's water polo coaches in the country, although that is changing. Before coming to Cal she spent four years at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, Calif., where she coached men's water polo and both men's and women's swim teams.
"I'm so proud of where I work," said O'Toole, already a fervent Bears fan. "It's easy to recruit when you're representing a university as academically outstanding as Berkeley."
O'Toole is also proud of her players. "Most of them are very young and inexperienced, but they're good athletes," she said. "They got here because they're successful academically, and that takes hard work, commitment, and dedication. Those qualities also make for great athletes. I always push them a little farther than they think they can go because it builds character. They don't back down. They're as physical, if not more so, than the guys. We've never lost a fourth quarter."
One player who is not inexperienced is 6-foot-1 sophomore Kaliya Young. A member of the Canadian national team, she is considered the top two-meter collegiate women's water polo player in the U.S. Besides flying back and forth to compete internationally, she is carrying 20 units at Cal.
Also on the team are sisters Alisa and Mel VonHartitzsch from Tulsa, Okla. Alisa transferred from Brown this year, both for the East Asian Studies Department and the water polo team. Mel was one of four to make the switch from Cal's swim team to water polo. "I chose Cal when I heard Maureen would be coaching," said Mel, a sophomore.
Intercollegiate women's water polo has taken off for two related reasons: the push for gender equity in college sports prompted by federal mandates, and the huge surge in interest at the high school level over the past few years.
This fall, 50 women came out for water polo at Berkeley. By Oct. 14 - start of the official 22-week season - 18 had made the varsity traveling team.
Fall semester the training regimen was relatively light: weights three days a week at 6:30 a.m., pool practice 8-10 a.m., Monday-Friday. Conditioning exercises include running up and down the stadium stairs, swimming while holding a chair up in the air (see above, left), and the occasional trip to San Francisco to swim in the bay and run back to BART.
Spring semester the team gears up for competition starting Feb. 13 against UC San Diego. Weights continue and pool practice increases to 8-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m., Monday-Friday.
Says assistant coach Steve Doten, '90: "Last year we taught the basics. This year we're taking it to the next level. These are great kids. I think we can win every game."