Water polo makes splash

High schools: Five private-school teams now compete for an annual Baltimore title as a West Coast sport slowly sinks in here.

High School

October 11, 2001|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Gilman's Gibbs Burke is constantly reminded of how little people know about his favorite sport.

"People ask me all the time what sport I play, and I tell them, `Water polo,' " said Burke, a junior. "They'll say, `What's that? Do you play with horses under water?'

"I have to tell them, `No, there's no horses.' "

Such is the reality for many private-school athletes in Baltimore who play water polo, a traditional West Coast sport that recently has been recognized at the high school level in Maryland.

Gilman, McDonogh and Calvert Hall started club-level water polo programs in the 1970s, said longtime Calvert Hall coach George Kropp. But not until last year did the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association officially sanction the sport and sponsor a conference championship.

"It gave legitimacy to us," said Kropp, who started the Cardinals' program in 1973 and has taught at the Towson school since 1960. "With some schools, the only way you can get a varsity or JV letter is if the sport is accepted by the MIAA. Plus, within a school itself, the status of varsity is much higher than the status of club."

Loyola and Mount St. Joseph are also part of the five-team league. Loyola started playing in 1997. The Gaels joined the league this fall because of what Mount St. Joe athletic director Paul Triplett called "a growing interest in the sport among our students."

"The sport is expanding, but it is slow and steady growth," said Gilman coach and aquatics director Scot Budde, an assistant on a Greyhounds team that last year beat Loyola, 7-6, to win the first MIAA water polo tournament.

"It is out here, but it is definitely most popular at high schools in California. Water polo in California is what lacrosse is in Maryland."

Water polo in Maryland remains a work in progress, and participants are fighting through a series of obstacles.

No recreational leagues in Baltimore teach the sport, meaning the only exposure kids get to the game is through intramurals or in gym classes.

"We are always teaching," said McDonogh coach Scott Ward, who has coached the Eagles for eight years and is also the school's swimming coach. "You are taking kids [who] never play the sport, and you have to teach them the necessary skills and the rules. It's a crash course, and, sometimes, kids just have to learn as they go."

Pools are also at a premium. McDonogh, Gilman, Loyola and Calvert Hall have pools on campus, but Mount St. Joseph rents pool time at the Community College of Baltimore County-Catonsville.

Getting recruited to a college is another problem for Baltimore players. Only 24 NCAA Division I colleges have water polo teams; 11 are in California. Locally, Navy has a nationally-ranked Division I program, and Johns Hopkins is one of Division III's top squads.

"Without a higher level, there's nothing for us to shoot for," said McDonogh junior Casey Harrison.

Several area players have made college teams, but for everyone, that is certainly not the goal. Most players are swimmers or athletes getting fit for other sports.

The game, consisting of four 7-minute quarters and played in pool, most of which are a minimum of 6 1/2 feet deep, forces players to tread water while trying to score by throwing a ball into a netted goal at opposite ends of the pool.

Six players and a goalkeeper per team play at once. Substitutions are permitted after a goal is scored, between periods, or during timeouts.

"It's not only the swimming. You exert energy every time you have to get the ball and yourself out of the water to shoot, pass, or defend," said Burke. "It can be very tiring."

Water polo, a physical, fast game, borrows from basketball and wrestling. Offensive players set up a perimeter and try to pass the ball to a teammate closer to the goal.

Contact is plentiful, because players maneuvering goalward usually compete one-on-one with a defender. Holding, sinking, pulling back, or hitting an opponent not touching the ball are illegal. But some contact is allowed when a player has the ball. Referees' jobs are difficult, because some of the action takes place under water.

"Treading water is a lot harder when people are pushing and pulling on you," said Harrison. "It is extremely physical underwater. People are kicking and punching, and you are getting clawed and scratched."

Some players say the physical nature and team-oriented focus of the sport is a welcome change, and what started as a means to get in shape becomes a passion or hobby.

"At first, I started playing just to get into shape for lacrosse, but at this point, it has become something that I like to do," said Harrison. "It's constant movement, and you are always working. I don't like sports where you are not always part of the action."

Junior Paul Wahbe, a swimmer at Loyola, agrees, saying: "Swimming gets boring after a while, so this is something different, faster paced and more exciting."

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