For the first time in their history, Exeter Water Polo Club have qualified a team for three of this year’s four ASA National Age Group Water Polo Championships Finals in the U17 and U19 age groups.
The club may now be one of the biggest in the South – and indeed the country – with a membership heading towards 200, nine qualified coaches and as the first water polo club in the UK to attain swim21 accreditation.
But Exeter have a relatively humble background, initially rising to the national stage in the 1990s under Chris Waller, winning their only two ASA National Age Group Boys’ U17 titles in 1999 and 2000, then dropping to a membership of less than 30 in the early 2000s.
But with the club’s fortunes firmly back in the ascendancy, the #NAGWaterPolo Hub caught up with Exeter head coach and chairman James ‘Jaggers’ Baker to talk about their success.
Exeter’s only two NAG Water Polo titles came in the Boys’ U17 event – how pleased are you with this year’s team?
Yeah, very pleased. The 1999 male team have an unbeaten seven match record going into the semi-finals where they will take on Sedgefield. We did well to defeat Manchester in the Qualification Round 14-11 and the team are confident of repeating that performance in the event that they meet Manchester in the final.
And what about the Girls’ U17 team, reaching the Finals in their first ever ASA National Age Group campaign?
A number of players approached the coaches at the start of the season suggesting we enter a team this year and that they would have a good chance. We’re lucky to have former Spanish international and qualified national coach Meritxell Escoda Manzano preparing the girls this year and that has made a difference.
A number of players approached us at the start of the season and said we would have a good chance.
I thought the girls progressed through the Prelims with ease, with a notable 10-1 victory over local rivals Bristol Central. The Qualifiers were a far higher level of competition but we recorded our first ever victory over Liverpool with a 11-10 result.
We play Manchester in the semi-finals but the girls know reaching the final is a distinct possibility as we only lost 16-13 to them in the Qualification Round.
How strong are the U19 squad this season?
The squad came third in 2013 and in March this year we provided the three players to the Great Britain U19 squad for the European Games qualifiers in Malta which was more than any other club in the country. One of those three, 16-year old Kamz Powell, is joint second highest goalscorer in NAGs this year which is no mean feat for a left-handed wing player.
We also have one of the most technically talented pit defenders in the country in Matt Potter who joined us when he was 14 and has never had England Talent training.
What do you put the club’s recent success down to?
The club has always coached the sport to the Dutch model of play. Even back when I was a player and Chris Waller was coach, his style was focused on actual game play and strategy from a very young age rather than the ‘core skills’ of the game. I’ve tried to carry this philosophy on since taking over.
We have a wealth of talent at the club now but in my mind, you cannot have talent development without having two other priorities – operating the club as a business with sound financial planning, and having a social club that players and parents really want to be part of.
How important is that social side of the club and the role of parents and friends as volunteers?
It’s not the players or coaches that form the bedrock of the sport in this country – it’s the countless unsung heroes who quietly complete the membership administration, deal with chasing subs, repair goals and caps, write up meeting minutes.
We have a true gent at Exeter in Mr Brian Steer who many will not know but without whom, I firmly believe Exeter would not be in any of the finals this year. Other clubs have their stars as well and it’s people such as this who volunteer, irrespective of whether their offspring are involved in the sport or not, who are instrumental in securing the long-term success of a club.