Water Polo Makes A Splash At Catholic Schools
Published: October 25, 2012
ATLANTA—Just like the players who compete in the pool, water polo is finding its buoyancy among the other sports of fall. It’s been a journey five years in the making, but a growing number of Catholic students, coaches and parents in the Atlanta area are embracing a sport that brings together intensity, competition and thrilling action, with a ball and goals in an aquatic setting.
Father Daniel Rogaczewski’s ambition to form a water polo team at St. Pius X High School was the impetus. Having begun teaching theology at the Atlanta school in 2003, the six-foot-four-inch priest finally brought a team together in 2007. One of four high schools with a team, St. Pius joined Wheeler High School in Marietta, Wesleyan High School in Norcross, and Pace Academy in Atlanta.
Marist’s top scorer Eric Thompson looks to fire a shot over the hands of St. Pius junior defender Will Gillett (#12). Pius defeated Marist in the Sept. 25 match at Wesleyan School 14-2. (Photos by Michael Alexander)
He was reassigned from St. Pius to All Saints Church, Dunwoody, earlier this year and passed overall responsibility for the water polo program to Michael Peters. This year Pius had enough students for two teams, so now they have an A team (Division 1) and a B (Division 2) team. Peters coaches the A team, and Father Rogaczewski coaches the B team.
The A teams are made up of older, more experienced players, while the B teams usually consist of younger players who are new to the game. Some are as young as eighth grade. The creation of two divisions prevents the new teams or inexperienced players from having to compete with more established teams and veteran players.
Blessed Trinity sophomore Ellie Rizzo fires a goal-scoring shot over the outstretched hands of St. Pius center defender Nick Geeflin. The St. Pius B team defeated Blessed Trinity 12-5 in game one of the Georgia High School Water Polo Association state tournament.
As a club sport, water polo is not a sport sanctioned by the Georgia High School Association, so there’s little or no support from the schools. The participants are responsible for paying Georgia High School Water Polo Association (GHSWPA) fees and must be members of the American Water Polo Association, which clears participants to play in Georgia and provides insurance coverage. For schools without a pool, players are assessed a pool fee that goes toward pool rental for practice. Today there are 21 teams (including Division 1 and 2) affiliated with the Georgia High School Water Polo Association.
As word circulated about the St. Pius water polo team, other Catholic school students took notice and interest spread. In 2010 Michele Emily Mandula started the club team at Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell. Another student took over the role of player-coach after Mandula graduated. This season Whitney Foster served as volunteer coach. Foster took a 2011 winless team to a 6-7 record, including two playoff victories.
“The kids were so grateful he came and taught them the rules and game strategy,” said Annie Rizzo, whose senior son and sophomore daughter play with Blessed Trinity. “Last year they were excited just to score a goal, but this year they became competitive. I’d have to vote our team as most improved!”
St. Pius coaches Father Dan Rogaczewski, back row, far left, and Michael Peters, front row, third from right, celebrate their 7-5-championship victory over Collins Hill with the team in the pool at the Cumming Aquatic Center, Oct. 14. (Photo by Kathy Gillett)
“We recruited teammates by word of mouth, created a Facebook group and made announcements at school,” said Warnock, who is currently a freshman at the University of Virginia. They purchased balls and even built their own goals out of PVC pipe, netting and duct tape.
Warnock credits Marist theology department chair Janet Claussen with helping to make the team a reality. Claussen volunteers as Marist water polo faculty moderator, manager and team mom. “She was crucial in helping us become a legitimate team. She attended every match and practice, helped negotiate with the school’s athletic department and attended all the GHSWPA league meetings,” said Warnock.
“Father Rogaczewski and other water polo league coaches and officials helped with teaching the basics and coaching until Jay Baxter came forward to volunteer his time and expertise,” said Claussen.
This season Meghan Littke-Smith joined Baxter as co-head coach at Marist. “The first year I came on board, we focused on individual skills,” said Baxter. “They were already good swimmers, but we had to focus on swimming with a ball, passing the ball and avoiding touching the ball with two hands. The second year we stressed team strategy and team play.”
Marist ended its first season in 6th place with a 7-4 record. After losing five seniors from the 2011 team and playing at the Division 1 level, this year’s team finished in 8th place with a 6-11 record. They will lose another four seniors from the 2012 team.
“My biggest concern going forward is the numbers,” said Baxter. “I hope our recruiting efforts are successful and we can get more people to come out in the spring,”
Club water polo’s co-ed element drew St. Pius junior Cecilia Probst to the team in 2011 after some male teammates on the swim team recruited her. Although Probst joined one of the all female teams created this year, she prefers the co-ed team. “The level of play is higher and the pace is faster, said the five-foot, five-inch, 113-pound Probst. “Playing with the guys has never been an issue for me, and I’m not afraid to be aggressive.” Blessed Trinity has four females on its team, and Elise Breaux has been the only female team member on the Marist team the last two years.
GHSWPA held its water polo championship at the Cumming Aquatic Center Oct. 12-14. The St. Pius A team won its fourth state championship in six years, after winning in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
“It was definitely an exciting moment,” said Peters. “I was just as excited as the kids, because it was a new experience for me, and it was gratifying to know that all the things I had been teaching them paid off in the end.”
As another season draws to a close, the players and coaches look for continued growth in the sport of water polo and hope it eventually becomes a Georgia High School Association–sanctioned sport.