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Grassroots development plus long-term vision equals success for Sask. water polo

15U girls water polo national champions Team Saskatchewan

If 18th century American politician Benjamin Franklin were around today, his most famous quote may have read something like this instead: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and Saskatchewan winning a national water polo championship.”

The results don’t lie.

When Team Saskatchewan won Water Polo Canada’s 17-and-under women’s championship in May, it marked the eighth straight season one of the province’s teams had earned a national title.

It was also just the tip of the iceberg on Water Polo Saskatchewan’s success story in 2022-23.

Under the leadership of provincial head coach and executive director Cyril Dorgigne, Saskatchewan also won Water Polo Canada’s National Champions League (NCL) Cup for a second straight year. That accolade was based on Saskatchewan’s overall performance at all NCL championship events throughout the season, with points earned based on teams’ final placements at national, regional and conference playoffs.

Dorgigne was named the national body’s regular season most valuable coach for his work with Saskatchewan’s men’s and women’s senior teams, while Mikayla Hack (regular season most valuable defensive player — senior women), Sydney Krushen (most valuable player — 17U girls’ NCL championship tournament) and Nash Porter (most valuable defensive player — 15U boys’ Western National Championships) earned individual honours at the national level this year as well.

And then there is Canada’s push to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Summer Games in Paris, which is being aided by two more Saskatchewan athletes — Blaire McDowell on the national women’s team and Brody McKnight on the men’s side. Thursday, the Canadian women secured a seventh-place finish at the World Aquatic Championships with a 14-12 win over Greece while the men finished 12th out of 16 teams in their own tournament.

The next qualification opportunity for both squads will be through winning gold at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, set to be held this fall, where Canada will be among the top-ranked nations.

For Dorgigne, who became Water Polo Saskatchewan’s provincial head coach in 2007 and executive director in 2010, the reason for that success is simple.

“It’s because we have a long-term vision for the athletes and the programs,” he said, noting that athletes can join comprehensive provincial training programs from the age of 10 years old. Additionally, all players aged 10-13 are eligible to participate in provincial training programs before the process becomes invitational for older players.

Another key, Dorgigne says, is a commitment to making sure all clubs feel included in the organization’s process.

“If a kid is coming from a smaller club and wants to go all the way to the top level in water polo, we can offer that,” he said. “If a kid is good from Estevan, we’re not going to miss him or her.”

Team Saskatchewan water polo national champions since 2015

2022-23 – 17U women

2021-22 – Senior women

2020-21 – 15U girls

2018-19 – 19U men

2017-18 – 19U women

2016-17 – Senior women

2015-16 – 16U boys

2014-15 – 16U boys

Hurricane season

Another relatively small club enjoying plenty of recent success provincially is the Weyburn Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes won this year’s 9U mixed provincial championship, the first Saskatchewan title for Weyburn since 2016. Additionally, 9U Hurricanes head coach Megan Schick was named Water Polo Saskatchewan’s coach of the year for 2023. That marked the second consecutive year a Weyburn coach won that award, after Dave Edgerton received the same honour in 2022.

For Schick, who grew up playing with the Estevan Sharks club and now has two daughters competing with the Weyburn club, the accolades are nice but also secondary in the bigger picture.

“I enjoy the team and family nature of water polo,” she said. “All age levels gather for tournaments and older players contribute to the sport by playing, officiating and mentoring through coaching younger age groups. It’s open to so many age categories and skill levels. Building relationships while enjoying sport is one of the best things about water polo. You really get to know your teammates, appreciate one another and work together toward a common goal.”

The Weyburn club’s success may also be just getting started.

Edgerton says the club saw a large number of players graduate or move away over the past two years, and created its 9U provincial program (also known as Minis) in 2016 in order to sustain the long-term growth of the club. That program was then adopted province-wide in 2017.

“The Weyburn Hurricanes had a big transition in players over the past two years with many of the most senior players leaving the sport or moving forward in other sports which usually happens with swimmers in the senior years of high school,” Edgerton said. “Because of this we developed years ago the Minis program for players as young as five in Weyburn. Therefore we have a continuous movement up of younger athletes.”

Like Schick, however, Edgerton says water polo is truly a sport for everyone, regardless of age, gender or ability.

“Anyone can play water polo and we have had members with physical movement limitations on land that disappeared when they were in the water,” he said. “To be a truly great water polo player you have to be coachable and willing to adapt and be able to handle their emotions. Excellent hand-eye coordination. Physical fitness is important as the sport is demanding, but there are no limitations due to body type. Above all, a great team has to work as a team no matter how good the individual player is.”

More than a game

Central to that teamwork is communication, something Austin Curtis has learned over his two years playing with the Regina Armada.

“As an athlete I’ve improved my swimming skills and, as a person, my communication with others, like calling out to teammates or making eye contact to receive a pass.” said Curtis, who will graduate to 15U in 2023-24.

Curtis added that his current goals are to make friends and have fun, an ideal Dorgigne says strikes at the grassroots of the sport, which currently has around 500 registered players in Saskatchewan.

“What I think is interesting in aquatic sports is that people are not made to live and move in the water — especially deep water,” he said. “Indeed everybody has to learn from scratch all skills. Water polo is not linked to any natural skill that everybody is developing naturally during their day-to-day life, like walking, running, or jumping. Therefore I would say there is a great diversity of individuals who develop to become great water polo players.”