Manitoba hopes it has the right mix in the pool when the 2012 Under-16 National Water Polo Club Championships makes waves in Winnipeg this weekend.
The provincial entry is one of 11 teams in the Canadian championship, joining entries from B.C., Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan at the Pan Am Pool. Action starts Friday and runs through Monday.
While water polo hot springs like B.C. and Quebec have multiple clubs in the event, Manitoba has had to amalgamate its pool of talent into one group, using players from Winnipeg clubs Bushido and Neptunes, plus the club in Selkirk. That's made for an interesting dynamic over the last few months, some say, as the new faces have had to blend in right away.
"At the very beginning, I wasn't sure how it was going to go," said Hanika Nakagawa, who plays with Bushido. "But everyone came together right away. I was kind of surprised."
Nakagawa, 15, is a rising star in the local waters. This will be her third Under-16 championship. The Winnipeg product has also appeared provincially in two Under-18 club championships, the latest coming earlier this month when Manitoba finished ninth out of 11 teams.
"This is exciting, playing a national at home is a new experience for all of us," added 15-year-old Natalie Blouin. "I'm not sure if there is any advantage or anything like that. We might be a little more confident playing in our own pool."
The women's Under-16 team is one of four clubs within the provincial system, joining the men's Under-16 club and the two Under-18 groups.
The man who oversees all of this is head coach Michael Reid, who returned to Manitoba water polo last fall after a six-year hiatus in Europe. Because he wears four different coaching hats, Reid will be in Victoria to monitor the men's club championship this weekend, so Bushido coach Heather Carson will oversee the women's operation.
Reid said the championships are a big moment for players looking to become the next Serena Bredin. The national team goaltender is from Winnipeg and spent her younger years with Bushido.
"For this tournament, there will definitely be coaches looking for kids for the developmental system, to ease them into the national program," Reid said. "If we get a couple athletes identified for that, that will be a success for me."
That process is well underway. Reid said the national program has already identified Nakagawa and Blouin, thanks to their participation at the under-18 championships.
On top of that, the head coach also says the players could make an impression on NCAA schools with a strong showing, following in the wake of Winnipeggers Breda Vosters and Shae Fournier -- two national junior players who have earned respective scholarships at the University of California and Indiana through the sport.
But those progressions are still years away for the under-16 team. Right now, Reid would be pleased to have the event serve as a showcase for water polo in his hometown and possibly whet the appetite of some younger players to give the sport a go. Water polo participation numbers, especially those in the 10-14 age range, trend towards the shallow end, he says, and an influx of youth at the club-levels is badly needed.
"At this point I'm not really worried about winning medals -- though that would be great," Reid said. "I'm hoping to change the culture a bit; to have water polo be an option for kids."
Manitoba's first match is against Storm Blue (Vancouver) at 6:15 p.m. The tournament gets underway at 9 o'clock Friday morning.
A quick look at Manitoba's entry in the 2012 Under-16 National Water Polo Club Championships at the Pan Am Pool this weekend:
Emily Egan (Neptunes), Devyn Smith (Bushido), Nadia Daza-Carias (Bushido), Andréa Rondeau-Brown (Neptunes), Gio Wickett (Selkirk), Sheila Jensen (Bushido), Natalie Blouin (Bushido), Annika Armstrong (Bushido), Stephanie Borlase (Neptunes), Ana-Marie Grabovac (Neptunes), Annie McIntyre (Bushido), Amy McIntyre (Bushido), Hanika Nakagawa (Bushido)
Friday, Manitoba vs. Pacific Storm Blue (Vancouver), 6:15 p.m.
Saturday, Manitoba vs. Pacific Storm White (Vancouver), 10:20 a.m.
NOTE: The top two clubs in each of the four divisions qualify for the playoffs. Quarter-finals start Saturday (3 p.m). Semifinals are at 2 p.m. and 3:20 p.m. Sunday, with the gold medal game scheduled to go at 1:20 p.m. Monday. Placement, consolation, and the bronze medal game take place in the morning hours the final two days of competition. For a full schedule, visit www.waterpolo.ca.