NEW OPPORTUNITIES: Water polo program develops at Santa Barbara City College

It’s not easy starting a new team. Brian “Chuckie” Roth realized he made a mistake in recruiting players for the first women’s water polo team at Santa Barbara City College when only five showed up on the first day of practice.

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“I had a lot of recruits that I thought were coming and people just didn’t show up,” Roth recalled. “I didn’t see that; I didn’t expect that to happen. I took ownership of that and apologized. Next year, I’ll make sure I recruit twice as many people.”

Roth managed to land a dozen committed players, and that group is laying the foundation of a program that has the potential to be a state power in the sport.

Roth tapped into his water polo class and swim team at SBCC and found players who played for strong high school programs in the area.

“I’m really stoked,” said sophomore Rocio Fesembeck, who was a starter on Santa Barbara High’s CIF semifinal team two years ago. “I think (a women’s water polo program) was long overdue. It’s going to open a lot of doors for women in the future who want to play water polo.”

For Fesembeck, the opportunity to play at SBCC is giving her a “second chance to go to a four-year school and play water polo. I’ve always dreamed of playing in college,” she said.

For team members like Maddie Brooks of Carpinteria and San Marcos alums Kaitlyn Wentz Fitzgerald and Autumn Lovett, having a program at SBCC fills an athletic void in their lives. They are passionate about the game and are grateful for the opportunity to keep playing it.

“I was so excited,” said Brooks. “I never thought I’d play water polo again after high school. In the Santa Barbara area, we got some really good schools. Right now I don’t think water polo is advertised enough. In the coming years, we’re going to have so many players. I know this program is going to be massive.”

Fitzgerald and Lovett are returning to the game. Fitzgerald graduated from high school in 2007 and played some club water polo at Cal Poly. Lovett last played on a team when she was at San Marcos in 2009.

“Chuckie asked me if I’d play,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s a great sport. I love playing it.”

Lovett was recruited out of Roth’s SBCC water polo class. “Chuckie said, ‘I’m going to have a swim team and if you do swim team you’ll be in really good shape for water polo,’” Lovett said of their conversation last winter.

Santa Barbara City College's first women's water polo team features a handful of former local prep stars.

Santa Barbara City College’s first women’s water polo team features a handful of former local prep stars.

She couldn’t believe what she heard. “Water polo? I love water polo,” she exclaimed. “I really was excited. Chuckie is probably one of the best coaches in town and I don’t think anyone else can tackle this as well as he can.”

The sport gets Lovett fired up. “You’re getting a physical workout and you get a little aggression out for the day. You get two hours in the pool where you don’t have to worry about anything,” she said.

Roth appreciates the commitment he’s received from the players. He knows they’re loaded down with responsibilities — a lot more than in high school.

“That’s hard at this level. It’s not just about sports and school anymore. It’s about sports, school and job,” he said. “I have to make sacrifices, they have to make sacrifices and everybody has to have a level of understanding. Very few of my girls have perfect attendance, that’s the reality of it.”

It’s not easy. The players take classes in the morning, leave campus for 11:40 a.m. practice at San Marcos High — where Roth is a fulltime teacher — and return to the college for more classes.

Brooks is carrying 17 units.

“That’s the cool thing about it,” Roth said. “You got a bunch of girls who really want to be here. That’s a positive thing.”

Roth said the team has made big strides in the short time it’s been together.

“It’s been a challenge but it’s been a cool and rewarding experience. These girls are appreciative for the opportunity and I appreciate them being here. It’s going to be a great program. It’s just going to take some time.”

He credits Athletic Director Ryan Byrne for having the vision of starting a women’s water polo and swim program.

“He saw an opportunity to promote women’s athletics in general,” said Roth. “And these are two sports we excel at (in the area). In my opinion, it’s a no-brainer. When you think of Santa Barbara, you think of water. It’s a gold mine waiting to happen. We just got to get the word out.”

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