Water Polo: It's Basketball, Lax, Soccer, and Ultimate Fighting...in a Swimming Pool
Posted 09/06/2017 09:45AM

by Kaitlyn Garrett/Lion Staff


Chlorine-filled water is splashing in your eyes and mouth; your legs are burning from treading water; your coach is screaming instructions to you; your opponents are lunging at you, knocking you under the water; and you’re trying to catch a ball with one hand. Basically take all the challenges of field and court sports, and have it take place in the deep end of a swimming pool.

That’s water polo, the game over twenty-five Lovett athletes have signed up to play for the very first time this year.

Nick Thurkow-Schlund and Will Schmersal have been pushing for this team for two years.  

“Last year at the end of the swim season, Will kept asking about it so I looked into it, and here we are,” Coach Nolan Morris says.

Will Schmersal says, “I wanted Lovett to have a water polo team, because I wanted to play a sport with a game aspect. Since 7th grade, I have only participated in two sports, swimming and cross country. Whereas both swimming and cross country are both racing sports, water polo is a game where points are scored with goals instead of times.”

Jennifer King and Nolan Morris are sharing the head coaching responsibilities. While Mr. Morris has no prior experience with the sport, Ms. King was an All-American in high school and played water polo at Holy Cross College.

Mr. Morris says she was a fantastic player and is really passionate about the sport. “She has been all hands on deck to help us build a team,” Mr. Morris says.

“I really like it because it's introducing students to a sport that I love,” Ms. King said.

The coaches were very pleased with the turnout of students interested in learning how to play. The coached relied on word of mouth to relay the news of the newly founded water polo team.

They got a head start over the summer with training and practices. “It was really the students who encouraged each other to come and join. As the summer went on more and more kids showed up,” Morris says.

None of the players had prior playing experience. There were 18 practice sessions over the summer, and only a few of the current team members attended half of the sessions or more. The team is comprised almost entirely of ninth and tenth graders, with only three upperclassmen.

Water polo is considered a club organization; the GHSA does not recognize water polo as an official high school league sport. But don’t be tricked into thinking that it’s not just as physically demanding as more traditional sports.

Mr. Morris describes it as a “combination of basketball and lacrosse and soccer and ultimate fighting.”

Brendan Okeson (10) says that it takes quite the toll on the body and muscles, specifically his back. He’s pulled three muscles so far.

But Harper Finch (10) had a different view: “You would think it would be your legs, but really it's more of your face because you're swallowing so much water and your eyes are filled with water.”  

The sport also requires mental strength: “The hardest part for the kids in the water is having a sense of what is going on... seeing through the noise,” Mr. Morris says.

I was surprised to hear that water polo is quite an aggressive sport, but after attending their latest game, I can confirm that he’s not exaggerating.

“The referees are above the water on the deck, and they can’t see what’s going on underneath the water....a lot of surprising violence takes place in this sport,” Mr. Morris says.

Case in point: Brendan’s human bite mark on his right arm. One day after a game, he got out of the water and was greeted with the sight of blood running down his arm. “I dried it and asked coach how I got a cut in water polo...he said it was a bite mark.”

But the presence of violence and intensity makes it fun for us to watch and for the coaches to teach. Ms. King admits that one of her favorite parts of teaching is “telling the water polo players that it's okay to kick someone under water and that it's okay to beat up on somebody because it's part of the game, you're supposed to do that...they’re like ‘what’?”

Since many of us may be unfamiliar with water polo, I asked Mr. Morris to give a quick primer on the rules (and no, sadly it’s not riding horses around a swimming pool).

During each quarter (a total of four that are seven minutes each), each team has seven members in the water. The players are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool and must score on the other team with a ball that’s the equivalent size of a volleyball but slippery. You can “dribble” with the ball (pushing it through the water) or swim with it, but it cannot be submerged underneath the water; you can only use one hand at all times.

If you’re interested in becoming an aquaholic next fall, you’re in luck. Mr. Morris says that they will take anyone who wants to learn how to play.

“We aren’t going to turn anyone away,” he says.

Ms. King suggests coming to summer practices to learn how to play the sport and trying a few games to see if you really like it.  “One of the benefits of it being a club sport is that if it's not for you, it’s okay,” she says.

Will Schmersal is certainly hooked. “Water polo has been awesome,” he says. “We have a young team and three great coaches. It is a tough sport to pick up, but everyone is working hard to figure it out.  In a couple years, we should be really good.”

Mrs. King sums the new sport up in three words: Tough. Fun. Intense.

With lots of water in your eyes.

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