By Steve Drumwright | June 08, 2018, 9:09 p.m. (ET)
(L-R) Brenda Villa, Guy Baker and Heather Petri pose for a photo at the 2018 USA Water Polo Hall of Fame induction on June 8, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.

 

IRVINE, Calif. -- When it comes to defining moments, they can usually be broken down into three parts: breaking in, establishing yourself and, if good enough, being honored for the work you have done.

The USA Water Polo Hall of Fame induction ceremony and luncheon held Friday was the crowning achievement for five people, but it could also be called a celebration of women’s water polo.

Three of the five inductees — Brenda Villa, Heather Petri and Guy Baker — all played key roles in the early stages of competitive women’s water polo at the high school, college and international levels. Along with Chris Humbert and the late Scott Hinman, they were honored for their accomplishments.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Petri said. “There were so many women here today that played prior to it becoming an Olympic sport and any one of them that aren’t in the Hall of Fame could be in the Hall and I’m glad they were here today.”

Villa, 38, and Petri, 39, are four-time Olympians – the only U.S. women’s water polo players who can say that – who played from the first appearance of women’s water polo at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 through to Team USA’s first gold medal in London in 2012. They won Olympic silvers in 2000 and 2008, plus a bronze in 2004. At the world championships, they claimed gold three times (2003, ’07, ’09) and a silver in 2005.

Petri, a former Cal standout and current assistant coach for the Bears, was a last-minute addition to the 2000 Olympic team after receiving a surprise invite to train with the team. She attended Miramonte High School in Orinda, California, initially playing on the boys’ team before helping to create the girls’ program. Petri was an attacker who played terrific defense and brought energy and intangibles to the national team.

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She stirred up the Hall of Fame ceremony by getting all of the Hall of Famers in attendance to come to the front of the room, where she high-fived each one, continuing a pregame tradition that started when she was a youth player to bond with her teammates.

“Thanks to all of those lovely teammates and coaches I had, I did cry,” Petri said of a video tribute that recapped the careers of each inductee. “When I played, I was a ball of energy and this energy that always wanted the best from all the girls. It was great to hear that and soak that up in a different way, thanks to so many incredible people in our sport, whether it was the legends who were inducted prior or those in the class this year. It made my heart very full.”

Baker defines what it means to be a pioneer in water polo. In the early 1990s, he resurrected the UCLA men’s and women’s programs after they had been shut down, first coaching the men and then the women, winning national titles with both. Baker took over the U.S. women’s program in the late 1990s, helping lay the groundwork for when women’s water polo became an Olympic sport in 2000.

He was coach of that initial Olympic team that won silver at the Sydney Games, then coached the U.S. to its next historic moment, winning gold at worlds in 2003. Baker then guided the U.S. to a 35-0-1 mark in 2007, highlighted by winning another world championship.

Following Sydney, Baker was put in charge of creating the next wave of Olympians, which resulted in multiple junior world championship medals. After coaching the 2008 team to Olympic silver, Baker also added more administrative roles, including the establishment of the USA Water Polo Olympic Development Program. He remains active as executive director of the Lamorinda Water Polo Club.

“It’s a great honor,” said Baker, who credited the many of assistant coaches who helped him along the way. “I’m not a big award-type person, but this one means a lot. I think just for all the people I talked about during the time (I coached), it means a lot to me.”

One of those people – Villa – is the most decorated woman and one of the most prolific scorers in the sport. At Bell Gardens (California) High School, she played four years on the boys’ team (there was not a girls’ team), earning all-league, all-state and All-America honors each year. Villa went on to Stanford, where she redshirted two years before water polo became an official NCAA sport in 2001. She won the Cutino Award as national collegiate player of the year and helped Stanford win the national championship as a sophomore after losing in the championship game the previous year. Villa had 172 goals in her three seasons at Stanford.

FINA Magazine named her the women’s water polo player of the decade for 2000-2009.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better class to be inducted with,” Villa said. “I think that makes it extra, extra special. It’s great to be able to get the whole water polo community together here – past, present and future – celebrating our sport. It’s a great day today.”

Villa was especially proud of what the day meant for the women’s game, citing in her speech being able to play sports in high school due to Title IX.

“(Today) was kind of like a history lesson,” she said. “I think we have had a lot of great success — you can probably count the number of (international) losses that they’ve had on one hand — but it’s great to remember where we came from as a program just to make sure it can happen right.”

Villa added that there are still strides that need to be made in the women’s game, particularly on the international level with countries that don’t have teams on that stage. The women’s tournament at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will feature 10 teams for the first time, compared to eight at the past four Games and six in 2000. The men's tournament has 12.

“There’s been a lot of incredible growth ... but it’s still not at the levels I want to see it at as a global sport, as a diverse sport, so we’re not done yet,” Villa said. “We can pat ourselves on the back, the U.S. has done a good job of supporting that and Title IX helps, but how can we make the rest of the world catch up. I never had an opportunity to play against Croatia and Serbia, where on the men’s side, they dominate.”

Hinman died at age 61 in March 2017 after he collapsed at a high school swimming meet where he was coaching. He coached Irvine High School to eight straight state championships in girls’ swimming and one state runner-up finish in girls’ water polo. Among the athletes he coached was four-time Olympian Amanda Beard, a two-time Olympic champion who won five medals overall. Hinman was the driving force behind getting women’s water polo established as a high school sport in California, essentially creating the Southern Section championships in 1998. He continued his pioneering ways by having a key role in the early days of the women’s national team program. Hinman played water polo at UC Santa Barbara and was also a member of the Santa Barbara Masters club. Hinman was represented at the ceremony by his family.

Humbert, 48, was a center forward and used his 6-foot-7 frame to dominate. A three-time Olympian from 1992 to 2000, he won World Cup gold in 1991 and 1997. In college, Humbert was on a Cal team that won three straight NCAA championships (1990-92), compiling an 86-2 record during that run. He was twice named the collegiate player of the year. Humbert, who lives in Greece, did not attend Friday’s ceremony. His mother and her husband represented Humbert.

A moment of silence was held for Charlie Schroeder, a 1981 Hall of Fame inductee and historian emeritus who died June 2. He was 98.

Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.