Nothing replaces game action, but Scott McCall will take any team-building opportunity he can get.
With 14 new faces in the Merced College men's water polo program and two more sophomores that are returning after time off, McCall needs his team members to get acquainted with each other quickly.
So the Blue Devils happily piled into a concessions booth at the Fresno State football team's home opener last weekend and spent the next 51/2 hours working as a unit. Fresno State needed overtime to beat Rutgers 52-51 on Saturday.
"We didn't really expect the game to go that long, but it turned out to be really good," McCall said. "It was a fundraiser for us, so that was really good, but it also turned into a real bonding experience.
"There were 20 of us, and everyone had a job to do. We had to communicate, and mostly we just had a lot of fun."
The Blue Devils may need that camaraderie early as they fight through the team's collegiate inexperience.
Jordan Madrid and Richard Cagle are the only returners from a group that went 15-18 a year ago.
McCall does get a little extra experience in the returns of Pete Brigham who played on the last MC team to go to the NorCal Tournament in 2010 and Hector Rangle (2011).
"Getting those guys back is certainly going to help," McCall said. "They've been there before. They know what it takes to compete at this level and to be successful.
"We had some scrimmages a couple weeks ago and the main thing I took away is we need to get some experience under our belts. It was good for them to see the physicality and the pace of this level, but we need more."
MC will start accruing that experience on Friday when they travel to Saratoga for the West Valley Tournament.
The Blue Devils are set to face San Diego Mesa, De Anza and perennial state power West Valley.
With 14 freshmen, McCall said he isn't really sure about the team's style or identity yet. It's likely to be dictated by which individual or individuals rise to the challenge.
"I don't know that we're going to have any big stars. I feel more like it could be a combination of guys contributing every night," McCall said. "Andrew Blackwood from Buhach Colony has good size and is so strong, we think he could have a very nice year.
"Wyatt Brigham (BC) and Justin Cowan (Atwater) have both looked really good so far. Damian Ruiz (Fresno) is one of our few guys from outside the area, but he has some pretty good speed.
"I don't really know what to expect yet, but I'm excited about our numbers and am looking forward to getting going."
MC women's water polo
The women's water polo team is one of the most storied programs at Merced College.
Under Bill Halpin's tutelage, the Lady Devils have made numerous NorCal and state tournament appearances, accumulating dozens of All-Americans and a handful of NorCal MVPs along the way.
With second-year head coach Karin Umemura honoring the retired Halpin at the squad's annual alumni game, a good portion of those highly-decorated athletes turned out to participate in the event.
The elevated competition might have been exactly what Umemura's inexperienced group needed as it prepares to open the season Friday against state power Orange Coast College.
"I think five NorCal MVPs played in that game," Umemura said. "They were pretty rough on the girls physically, but I think it's just going to help us.
"Orange Coast is one of the top-10 ranked teams in the state, so it was good for them to see some competition near that level."
With only 13 athletes on the roster, depth is going to be a real issue for MC this season. It's going to be even tougher with four of those 13 having a year or less of water polo experience.
"We're going to have to rely on our starters a lot," Umemura said. "We're thin and we have even less experience.
"The girls are going to have to be in good shape, and then we're going to have to be smart in how we use our energy."
Sarah Sufuentes and Kellie Ketchum are the only returning starters on a squad that went 18-9 last year. Umemura has four other returners, but all had limited roles.
Her freshman class will be led by goalkeeper Sarah Johnston (Merced). She also has some attacking options in Haley Fisicaro (Ceres) and Alexandria Sisneros (Turlock).
"It's not going to be easy, but the girls are working hard and making some real progress," Umemura said. "Teams have had small rotations before. We'll just have to be smart about how we use ours."
Sports writer Sean Lynch can be reached at (209) 385-2476 or email@example.com.