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Masters of Their Domain
May 30, 2008, By Scott Adams - Sports Editor
For better and for worse, Lee Walton's transition back into coaching men's water polo has been nothing short of well received.
"Unfortunately, the game has changed very little," said the strapping 73-year-old Morgan Hill resident. "It's still a very physical game that's tough to officiate. People are much bigger, much stronger and much faster, but the game hasn't really changed."
The same can be said for Walton's coaching prowess.
Following a 23-yard break from the pool deck, Walton is in his third year skippering the 55- and 60-and-over Masters water polo teams of club Tri Valley, a Silicon Valley-based outfit of elite players.
Under the guidance of Walton, who's twice been inducted into San Jose State's Hall of Fame as a player and coach, the squads have strong-armed the Masters circuit, combining for four major championships - two national and two world.
The most recent accolade came two months ago in the biennial FINA World Masters Championships in Perth, Australia - the biggest stage for Masters aquatics.
The teams are training for next weekend's Masters National Championships at Saint Mary's College in Moraga.
"We dominate the geriatric level," Walton joked. "It's amazing to coach people that age that are willing to spend that much time staying fit and are well educated in the game.
"When I first started coaching them, I thought if they could dedicate themselves and stay in shape we'd have a lot of success. It's been an absolute joy and privilege to coach them. I have a team that knows more than I do."
Walton's players make up a bevy of aquatic expertise. Starters George Stransky, Chick McIlroy Dan Drown are past Olympians; Mike Monsees and Dennis Belli are water polo and swimming coaches in the Santa Clara Valley, and Bob Nealy, the team's leading goal scorer at Perth, invented the surfboard leash - just to name a few.
They practice almost every weekend in San Jose, traveling from as far away as San Clemente and Anchorage, Alaska.
"The dedication is really incredible," Walton said. "It's amazing. It's amazing people will take the time. It's a time commitment going through a weight workout and training workout and going to practice on the side, plus staying sharp mentally."
Walton coached many of his players at San Jose State, including Monsees who played on two of the Spartans' three teams that reached the NCAA Final Four from 1970-1972. Under Walton, San Jose State won a national title in 1968 - Monsees' freshman year.
"Coach called me two years ago and asked if I wanted to play Masters," Monsees said. "I was on the 55-plus team to start, and we were a pretty successful team. We won them all."
Walton's positive attitude has been a key element behind the success of both teams - that and his ability to utilize talent.
"It's great playing for Lee. He communicates to all ages," McIlroy said.
"He puts us in position to win games," added Gary Sheerer, who plays driver for both of Walton's teams. "It's a lot of fun playing for him now.
"I played at Stanford when Lee coached at San Jose State, and my teammates and I had a high regard for him and the teams he fielded."
At this level of the sport, Walton considers himself more of a director than a coach.
"I kind of synthesize ideas," he said. "I try to put people together and make the combinations we need to work. We have people that can do the same kinds of things but ... they have some wrinkle that makes them different. When you put those wrinkles together in the water, you get the performance you need. We have wrinkles that other people aren't used to. We don't have the fastest people, but we score goals."
Perth was no exception.
Walton's Spartan Cardinals crushed the competition like Tiger Woods playing an amateur tour. The teams suppressed the mighty Australian and German clubs in surprising fashion, averaging 11.4 goals per game at the 60-and-over level and almost six goals at 55 and over.
"We were devastating people in the 60s," Walton said. "Europeans like to think of 2-1 as a close game. ... They really couldn't figure out what was going on."
All but one of Tri Valley's players scored a goal at Perth except for Stransky, the starting goalie.
"We chastised him for it," Walton joked. "Our backup goalie even scored. He was playing forward at the time."
Walton's teams won 12 of their 13 games, with the 60-and-over Spartan Cardinals capturing a world title. They defeated Poseidon/Hamburg 10-4 in the finals to complete a perfect 7-0 tournament.
"Mission accomplished," said McIlroy, a 60-and-over driver. "When we started training for this seven months or so ago, we decided to go for it all. Everyone committed to working hard on their swimming and drills. It paid off big time. We were in far better condition than our opponents."
Hence the keystone of Tri Valley's success. Through intense conditioning, the Spartan Cardinals stay in top playing form throughout the year. Each player has the physique of an 18 year old - making their team photo a humbling sight for some.
"It took about a year and a half to get in this shape," Sheerer laughed.
"You don't see people playing like this at this age," Walton added. "Chick's almost 70 and he's still motoring around out there."
McIlroy recalled a game at Perth in which Tri Valley showcased its vaunted counter attack.
"One of the Aussis looked at me and said, 'Hey mate, how about dragging me to the other end?'" McIlroy laughed. "It's like Lee said when I thought about joining the team: 'Get in your best shape and you'll do fine.'"
Tri Valley came close to becoming the first club to win both age brackets at Perth, but the 55-and-over team settled for fifth place after forfeiting its first three games because of a controversial roster infraction.
Tri Valley's 55-and-over roster was not complete, so the 60-and-over team allocated a player.
"Everyone was fine with it," Walton said. "We went to the tournament president, trying to cover our bases. All of a sudden three days later, these FINA officials came up and said we broke a rule and had to be punished. They disqualified our first three games. It was ugly news."
The 55-and-over players took two of their three remaining contests, beating KAOS Spoilers 9-5 in their final game. They'll return to play next Friday in the Soda Center at Saint Mary's vying for a third straight national championship. The tournament runs June 6-8.
"We've done pretty well together and we expect to do the same," Sheerer said. "It's another chance for us to relive our youth and reconnect with old friends and make new ones. The little fraternity of water polo is pretty tight. People always just did it for love of the game."