For three years, Sam Lovetro coaxed friends and classmates to form the state’s first high school water polo league.
His persuasiveness paid off in February when about 50 athletes from Mesa Westwood, Phoenix Desert Vista, Mesa Red Mountain and Mesa High began playing competitively at Mesa’s Shepherd Junior High School.
“When I (get home) from practice I just feel so happy,” said Lovetro, a 17-year-old Westwood senior. “I recruited a lot from my school and went around asking people who had played in junior high. I told them that it’s fun.”
Westwood’s Josh Schall, 18, is one of Lovetro’s recruits.
“This is the first year I’ve played water polo. I thought, 'What the heck. I’m a senior. I don’t have much to do, sure I’ll play,’ ” Schall said, adding he is considering playing in a league with Lovetro over the summer and hopes to play in an intramural league when he heads to the University of Arizona as a pre-med major in the fall.
Cris Heitland, 16, joined the league to stay conditioned for swimming the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke events as a member of the Red Mountain swim team.
“(Water polo) brings a lot more conditioning than swimming, if not the speed,” Heitland said. “Also, it’s a great way to get your friends out and have a lot of fun.”
Water polo excites a lot of the athletes because it combines strategies and rules from a variety of sports.
It combines the tactics of basketball, has goals and goalies like soccer and its rules are a lot like ice hockey, said adult coordinator Bill Loffswold, a 20-year coaching veteran and former player.
“Water polo players have to be excellent swimmers, but at the same time they have to be very intelligent, well-rounded team athletes. It is a very difficult sport to learn and that is why it tends to grow slowly,” Loffswold said.
Currently, Desert Vista is the only high school supporting the league. Most participants must pay their own way and Loffswold, with help from his wife, Beth, has taken responsibility for securing practice and game facilities, coaching, officiating and scheduling. He also receives a lot of help from parents.
Individual fees are about $85 and teams will pay between $200 and $300 to participate in the finals.
Most of the league’s participants are not out to earn college scholarships. Water polo simply isn’t that popular outside of California, which forms six of the country’s 11 USA Water Polo zones. Arizona is in the Mountain Zone which covers New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and El Paso County, Texas.
“It will take a while for us to develop to where the kids are actually preparing to play at the collegiate level,” Loffswold said. “Some (of the current participants) may play junior college. Some may go play at the club level.”
Lovetro has been on the Mountain Zone team several times. On Sunday, he was invited to participate in the zone trials on April 14 in Kearns, Utah. From there, 14 people will be invited to the zone championships over Memorial Day weekend in San Francisco and two to three people will be invited to try out for the Olympic Games.
“The main reason I’m playing is not to get better; it’s that I just want to grow the program,” Lovetro said. “I want it to be a school sport across the state.”
He also wants to be a coach like Loffswold.
“He has such a drive to keep this program going,” Lovetro said. “It’s great to have him because he loves it so much. I’d like to be a water polo coach someday, so he’s definitely an inspiration.”