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Spartans girls have lost just two conference games, take aim at postseason run.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Hillsboro High School's Rena French during a girls' water polo match against Parkrose High School at Shute Park Aquatic Center on Monday, Oct. 8.What is water polo, anyway?

It's all right if you don't know. A lot of people don't. And Hillsboro Spartans head coach Cam Clitheroe is aware of that.

"Most people think it involves horses," Clitheroe said, somewhat sarcastically.

Funny, but this isn't a laughing matter to these coaches and players.

Water polo is not for the meek. It's a sport that combines both speed and strength, as well as teamwork and a very, very high level of fitness. An outfielder (a position in the sport) has been known to swim up to two miles during a game, and players — with the exception of some goalies in Oregon high school games, due to facilities — aren't allowed to touch the bottom of the pool. In this state, the game is not sponsored by the Oregon School Activities Association, but instead is governed by the Oregon High School Water Polo Committee, which promotes, oversees and regulates the game.

There are two classifications: a 6A classification with four divisions and with 27 teams, and a 5A/4A classification with North and South divisions comprised of 14 teams. Hillsboro, a 5A school, plays in the North Division with Hood River, Parkrose, Madras/Culver, Redmond and Ridgeview. The team was started nearly two decades ago, and according to Clitheroe, it has been growing in popularity ever since.

"It's a little streaky, but the kids we get tend to enjoy it and it's a great way to stay in shape for swimming," Clitheroe said.

Not so strangely, strong swimmers are formidable in water polo. Due to such, a quality swimming program often facilitates a water polo program, and vice versa. This year's Spartans girls' team, who as of this paper's print deadline sat with a 12-4 overall record and only two losses in conference play — one to Sandy, and the second last week versus Hood River Valley, the top 5A team in the state — is not so coincidentally led by one of Hillsboro's top swimmers, senior Rena French.

"Our girls have been building for the last three years and we have five seniors," said Clitheroe. "Sometimes you'll get a natural athlete. ... One of my girls, Rena French, has been good since her freshman year, and now as a senior, she's over the top."

French, who leads the team with 75 goals, and her senior teammates rely on experience in the pool, but they also — according to their coach — have a nice combination of speed, quickness and ball skills, the traits necessary to excel in the game.

"You need to be a good and fast swimmer and have quick reactions for turnovers," the coach said. "If you can get a break on your defender, you can have a fast break. Also, leg strength and ball skills are a must, as well as the ability to shoot hard and accurate."

If it sounds like other sports you know, you're right.

"I tell people it's a cross between hockey and basketball," Clitheroe said. "The strategy is a lot like those two sports. You set picks and drive to the basket or goal."

Don't confuse water polo with chess, though. Despite its intricacies, it's also simplistic in a number of ways.

"Offensively, you go to an open area; defensively, you cover your man," said Clitheroe. "That's one way to look at it."

Clitheroe, whose daughter played on the team in 2005-06, is in his 13th year coaching Hillsboro. He's seen up and down years, but he has been impressed with his girls' team this season, and encouraged by his boys, who lost a number of seniors to graduation last year.

"The girls are having a really nice year, and the boys have competed despite losing a lot of guys from last year's team," Clitheroe said. "Unless you have a club team in the area that feeds your program, you're going to go through cycles. When you have upperclassmen, you'll be good; when you don't, you're going to struggle."

Hillsboro High is the only school in the Hillsboro School District that has a water polo team. Because of that, the OHSWP allows other area kids to play for the Spartans. Clitheroe said the organization only allows three out-of-district kids, and none if a school already has the necessary 14 players for a team.

"We have two boys and three girls from other schools, and they're all young kids," the coach said. "They don't want 'superteams.'"

There's no threat of that at Hilhi. But the Spartans are having a good year, and Clitheroe is excited about the upcoming postseason.

"The girls should get pretty high seed," he said. "Of course we'd like to win a championship, but that's not going to happen with a team like Hood River. They're a notch above us. But our goal has always been to get to the playoffs and be in the top four."

In addition to Rena French, sophomore Arwen Nielsen, sophomore Maya French and senior Shawna Ashley Ingram have all scored double-digit goals this season.

On the boys' side, senior Trevor Griffin leads the team with 32 goals, while senior Nathan Claxton and junior Jack Schaber also both have scored in double digits.

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