Sports

Merced High water polo team meets grim reality

The Merced boys water polo team had never met Arlo Roberts before fate tragically brought them together on that sunny Saturday afternoon on Aug. 16.

ARLO ROBERTS' last moments were as horrific as life's final seconds get.

The 33-year-old man from Turlock suffered blunt-force trauma to his head and neck during a diving accident at Rainbow Pools -- a swimming hole near the entrance to Yosemite National Park.

He was later pronounced dead en route to the hospital.

Roberts had hoped to spend the day with family and friends, enjoying the sun, splashing around in the water, and yes, doing a little cliff diving.

Tens of thousands of people have jumped from these rocks without so much as a skin slap.

But out here in the thick of the woods, the tiniest of mistakes can be fatal.

Roberts leaped from a 30-foot ledge overlooking one of the pools. He crashed into a cluster of rocks hidden just beneath the surface and slipped into a crevasse some 25 feet down.

Meanwhile, about a half mile away, a group of teenagers struggled through the back half of an hour-long hike, passing a rock back and forth among each other.

Neither could both know that in a matter of minutes, their stories would become entwined.

Forever.

STEVE ECCLES has been around team sports long enough to know that "team" comes before "sports."

It's one of the mantras he's adopted during a career spanning nearly two decades on the pool deck at Merced High.

"That's me," Eccles says. "I'm a team, do-it-together kind of guy. You do it the right way or you don't do it all."

Eccles is the boys water polo coach, which makes him sort of an expert on team dynamics.

When you're in the pool with six other guys, kicking and fighting for the ball, shooting and splashing around, there's no hiding it.

You either have it.

Or you don't.

That "it' I'm referring to is chemistry -- a willingness to fight for the guy next to you.

Sometimes, if you're lucky, it comes naturally. Most of the time, though, it takes work -- endless amounts of work.

But then there are those very rare moments when that bond is born out of adversity -- as the Merced kids learned that afternoon near Yosemite.

"I've been doing this a long, long time," says Eccles, who fancies himself as a master motivator. "I think this is a great arena for our kids to learn how to work with each other.

"They need to learn to be committed to each other."

So each summer, before the practices and games really start to matter, Eccles takes his boys high into the hills for a mini-boot camp.

This year they settled on Rainbow Pools.

"We don't go on these trips to have fun," Eccles said. "I like to kick their butts."

For years, Eccles has kept the same regimen on these little getaways: a long hike followed by swim relays.

Each exercise incorporates a 20-pound rock with the word "Unity" and a collection of names painted on its sides.

Eccles' rules state that the team must carry the rock for the duration of the hike or relay, passing it off to a teammate every five minutes.

Any other year, the "Unity rock" would have tested the boys' mettle to no end.

Not this time.

ROBERTS inched toward the edge of the rock ledge and peeked over at the water below, mapping out his jump.

The terrain up here is as dangerous and unforgiving as it is majestic and beautiful.

Make no mistake about it, this patch of greens and browns just east of Groveland is Mother Nature in her most primitive state.

Rock covers most of the ground. Trees shoot up into the sky. And water cascades off the mountains above, creating these little swimming holes.

Paul Taulla, a public information officer with the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department and the man who delivered news of Roberts' death, called the area deep, rocky and slippery.

"And you'd better watch your step," Taulla warned.

ECCLES KNEW very little about his team before their day trip. In 15 years, he says he's never had a group this young or thin on experience.

When Central California Conference play rolls around, chances are only one senior will crack the starting lineup.

Fortunately for Eccles, he's a good one: Matt Rabe, a returning all-conference player and one of the best swimmers in the area.

"He's awesome," Eccles says of Rabe. "I can't say much more about the kid."

Still, Eccles had his doubts.

Would he have a team that would roll over against a deep and loaded field in the CCC?

Or would he have a team that would scrape and claw and fight every minute in the pool?

He'd know soon enough.

NEWS of a possible drowning rifled through the park like raccoons on the hunt. It was Roberts.

"We were about 10 minutes away," Eccles said. "When we got down there, they said the guy was still down. I guess he had been down for almost a half hour."

Eccles, a former lifeguard, acted on instinct.

"I'm going in," he told his boys. "And we're probably looking for a dead body.

"You don't have to get in. I don't want you to do it if you have any reservations."

Any questions about the character of his team were answered right there on the shores of the pool.

"We knew what we had to do," Rabe said. "Coach said if we were scared, we could leave. None of us left."

The team, still aching from their hike, pulled on their goggles and combed the murky waters, using a dive pattern set up by Eccles.

Within minutes, they had spotted Roberts wedged between some rocks.

Rabe, the senior leader, performed the rescue dive, carrying Roberts -- a burly man nearly twice his weight -- to the surface.

By himself.

"There was no hesitation," Rabe said. "I felt it had to be done."

"I could see it in their eyes, they were pretty scared," said Eccles. "But it doesn't surprise me at all that those guys got in. I've got guys with character."

If we've learned anything over the years, especially in the realm of sports, it's that tragedy almost always gives way to extraordinary triumph.

The Merced water polo team found Roberts that afternoon when nobody else could and gave him at least a chance to live.

And in the process, the athletes may have found themselves, too.

James Burns is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2417 or via e-mail at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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