Photo: Scott Karlins Collins Hill's girls co-captain Becky Bass defends in a game against Lakeside on Sept. 6. Water polo continues to grow in Gwinnett. This year, the league includes four all girls teams for the first time.
Lennox Balog had a fading bruise under her eye.
And smiled about it.Balog plays water polo for Collins Hill. The bruises are part of the sport. And a badge of honor.
It's often called the toughest sport in the world.
Which is just fine with Balog and her teammates.
"It's one of the reasons, I think, we all play. We like how rough it is," junior attacker Becky Bass said. "You don't get that in other sports."
Until this season, Balog, Bass and all the other girls in the metro area only had an opportunity to play in the co-ed league, on the A or B teams.
"It was a little different than I thought it would be when I first started," said Balog, who is in her second season of water polo, but swims year-round. "I didn't know about the whole boy/girl, all playing on the same team.
"It's a lot rougher than I thought -- and I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would."
But the Georgia High School Water Polo Association was able to form four all-girls teams this year, creating another opportunity for girls in a sport that's caught on recently in Gwinnett.
"Along with the other board members, there was a collective push to get the girls division going," Collins Hill head coach and board member Brian Collins said. "At the spring meeting, we had it as an agenda item and we asked each club how many girls they were anticipating for their fall season.
"We took those numbers, put them together and scheduled it out. It looked like we could form four teams. There are three clubs that made their own team -- us, Lakeside and Pope. The fourth team is a mixture of all the other girls available from all the other clubs."
The girls still play on the co-ed teams because it's the highest level of competition. But they also relish the chance to play with and against the girls.
"It's really different, but it makes it really fun, too," Balog said. "It brings the girls closer together and I guess it can be a little less intimidating. Especially for a lot of the new girls. It definitely lets the girls shine a little more. Because it's not as much about being as strong as the guys and being compared to them. It's a lot more fun in my opinion, too.
"It's not easier, but it is more relaxed and everyone's not trying to hurt each other."
Balog laughed a little at that.
These girls aren't looking for easier.
The chance to play more and help the sport grow is an undeniable draw.
"It's different because the guys tend to get more aggressive and they adapt to the sport a lot quicker than the girls," said junior Brooke Phillips, who with Bass and Balog co-captains the Collins Hill girls team. "Every team in the girls league is about even. We all have new girls. We all have experienced girls. But it's really great because, like Lennox said, we all get a chance to shine.
"Especially because we have so many kids on our B team, I think it's 24, this gives the girls on the B team a lot more playing time, a lot more one-on-one attention with the coach and with the captains. It's a really good experience for newer players who are girls to get into the sport."
Phillips, in her third season with the team, has gone to great lengths to recruit players every offseason.
She's willing to go to other schools and try to convince athletes from other sports to give water polo a shot.
"Last year we heard a rumor at the end of the season that there could be a girls team," Phillips said. "So we were going to need more girls in the league. But Brian told us also that he was trying to keep our team together. At that time, we had pretty much half our girls graduate. So we tried to recruit in a bunch of new girls, for that team, but also for A and B. Half our team last year was seniors.
"We tried to get some football players and wrestlers. We went to different schools. I went to Peachtree Ridge swimmers and tried to get them. Being a rival, they turned us down. But yeah, we tried."
Bass was recruited by Phillips two years ago. Bass goes to Brookwood, but trains with Phillips and Balog at SwimAtlanta.
"The team is like a big family, so walking into that, I was a little nervous," Bass said. "I only knew one person. But everyone is so friendly and the game is so much fun."
Bass admits it's a little weird playing for another school since Brookwood doesn't have a water polo team.
"When I wear one of my polo shirts to school, I get the remarks," she said.
Then Bass said something that caused Balog and Phillips to explode with surprised laughter.
"But, you know, during the water polo season, I'd rather be an Eagle than a Bronco," Bass said.
It's not a long season though.
It starts when school begins in the fall, which is part of the reason it's tough getting freshmen on the team.
"We've never had middle school players before," said Collins, who has three girls and two boys that young this season. "It's always been even kind of a struggle to get ninth-graders out because it's right at the beginning of the school year. They have to either know someone or have heard it somehow at the pool.
"This year we actually have a ton of ninth-graders, which is great."The season only lasts about two months. The girls league will hold its championship tournament on Oct. 7 and the co-ed league finals are a week later.
"Hopefully we have a good crowd turnout at the state championship and maybe then we'll have some more girls get interested," Phillips said. "Who knows? Maybe it might become a varsity sport. Maybe not when we're in high school, but maybe soon."
Collins is hoping to add at least one more team to the girls league next season. He sees the same potential for growth that has had the co-ed league jump from four teams in 2007 to 10 the following year when Collins Hill joined. This season the league has 21 teams.
"I don't expect the numbers to grow quite that quickly (for the girls), but hopefully in a few years it will be up to eight or 10 teams," Collins said. "Our girls have always committed to playing up (on the A team), going to battle against the boys.
"Last year, we picked up some younger girls who at times would struggle in the guys' games so it was harder to get them in. I know that for other teams even more so than us. So this girls league has really opened it up for more development. For those girls to get time and get acclimated."
There's a lot of excitement surrounding the new division, even extending down the road to Atlanta. The women's water polo team at Emory held a clinic in April and several of its players have come to games to act as mentors.
"(This season) has been great," Bass said. "I've been doing A and girls. Girls, of course, is new and the A team is always challenging. I've played a little bit of every game (in co-ed). But girls has really opened some new windows and you have ton of new girls this season.
"I'm used to it being rougher so when it comes to the girls' games, it's more technique-based. I'm not quite used to that, but it's really fun."