Volume 8, Issue 44  |  June 2, 2023Subscribe

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You Must Remember This: NHHS water polo, then and now


I didn’t grow up with a father who followed sports. As a result, I was never exposed to football, baseball or basketball. When I got to Harbor High, I went to a couple of football games as a freshman because friends went, and I hadn’t a clue as to what was going on. Being an obliging sort, I yelled whatever the cheerleaders exhorted me to yell, sang the fight song when the band played and then had a sort of “been there done that” reaction. I paid very little attention the rest of my time at Harbor and couldn’t have told you whether we had a good team or a bad one. I can now, however. We had bad teams. In looking back at my yearbooks, the varsity football team won one or two games a season and the losses were often by lopsided scores.

As for the other two big sports, I never went to a basketball or baseball game, although I did understand the sports since we girls played them in gym, although the girls’ version of basketball was a pale shadow of the boys’ game.  Each player was limited to two dribbles, and everyone played half court, forwards on one half, guards on the other, with a foul being called if a player stepped over the line. This was the period when females were viewed as delicate little things, not up to the rigors of a full-court press. Again, I couldn’t have told you the status of either of the boys’ teams, but a quick look at the yearbooks shows they weren’t winning any trophies either.

Despite their less than indifferent records, these three sports were the leads in the yearbook productions. Meanwhile, the real talent, the one with actual Oscar potential, was hidden a bit backstage. You had to thumb through quite a few pages to get to swimming, but when you got there it was solid gold. Under the direction of Ted Newland, Harbor was a powerhouse with a tradition of sweeping the dual meets and winning Sunset League. I’ve often wondered if that dominance wasn’t why Newland introduced water polo to the school – to give him and his team a new challenge. A challenge it was, but in an unexpected way. In water polo you need to be a good swimmer, obviously, but it’s more than that.  You’re going to be throwing a good-sized ball at a goal without the ground to provide a base. You have to have tremendous leg strength and technique to provide the leverage that lets you rise out of the water to make the shot, and not just for a second. A player may be up there for quite a period, faking, waiting for the goalie to commit before taking the shot and sinking down. Now this was in the days before lavish spending on high school sports venues. A pool was considered perfectly adequate if it held water and that the Harbor High pool did, just not that much of it. Most of the pool was barely five feet deep, which meant the guys could easily stand on the bottom. An advantage, right, standing to take shots on goal? Unfortunately, there’s a rule that you can’t touch or push off the bottom at any time. Do that, and you lose the ball, so the team had to learn all the movements in a very condensed fashion to avoid touching the tile or, as most of them did, learn to touch down so slyly that the referees couldn’t detect it. Of course, for visiting teams, it was an even worse challenge since most of them hadn’t practiced in a shallow pool, and some think this was why Harbor did so well right out of the gate, winning eight of 13 games its first year. I think it was just the raw talent imported from the swim team.

Today, Harbor has a beautiful pool with plenty of depth for water polo, and the current players far surpass those pioneers of the sport, but if you put them back in the old, shallow pool? My money’s on the old guys. 


Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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