Clustered closely together on the big wooden bench in the foyer as they wait to begin practice, the motley crew of the new Lick-Wilmerding Water Polo Team exudes friendly, inclusive, jovial, and slightly rambunctious energy.
This fall marks the inaugural season of the Lick-Wilmerding Water Polo team. A co-ed team of eighteen boys and seven girls, the group practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons at the City College natatorium, located across the street from Lick.
Fifteen minutes later, the team is in the water. Coach James “J.D.” Ellingson watches them carefully as they warm up. Ellingson, bearing an impressive beard that somehow matches his stocky and compact build, shouts encouragement and pointers at his athletes. He walks barefoot on the water-slick cement around the edge of the pool; he seems to yearn to jump in the pool himself.
Ellingson says that water polo was the perfect sport to add to the Lick sports program. “It fits into the Lick tradition,” Ellingson insists. “It’s an intellectual sport. There’s very much a team element to it, and it teaches you about respect.”
“Water polo is a mix of soccer, wrestling, and hockey,” continues Ellingson. “It facilitates many different styles of play.”
A self-described “water kid,” Ellingson grew up near a lake and started swimming competitively at age six. He began playing water polo in the seventh grade, and plays on an amateur team today.
Ellingson says he has been pushing for a water polo team at Lick for years. Starting in February of last year, that dream slowly became realized.
The new squad comes as part of a reshuffling of the sports schedule. Recently, Lick’s sports league, the Bay Counties League (BCL) West, elected to move girls soccer to the winter. This move allowed girls to participate in other spring sports, such as lacrosse and track & field.
Lick followed suit with the move, which had several consequences. For example, the girls’ move provoked the idea to move the boys’ team to the winter. That move would make sense, because many club soccer teams meet during the fall. Commitment to both club and school teams would improve if boys could play club soccer in the fall and school soccer in the winter.
However, with these teams moving, Lick needed another co-ed team for the fall: in the winter there is wrestling, and in the spring there is baseball.
Lick Athletic Director Eliot Smith pitched the idea of a water polo team last spring. When students demonstrated a sizable interest, he began making plans to go ahead with the team.
One of the reasons why the water polo team was established was to attract more interest in water-sports from boys. Over the past few seasons, girls have outnumbered boys on the swim team by a ratio of nearly 3:1. Ellingson was looking for a solution to get more boys in the water in the fall before the swim season. He determined that the aggressive nature of water polo might draw more boys to swim in the spring. So far, the plan has worked well; converse to its spring counterpart, boys outnumber girls on the water polo team by a ratio of about 3:1.
Commitment to the team was a bit of a concern to Smith when the idea came up. Typically, when not enough students sign up for a sports team, the sport is cancelled for that season—which caused the dissolution of Lick’s golf team and boys’ volleyball team (which was cancelled after only four boys signed up one year). Though few students offered their full commitment to water polo last spring, Smith decided to establish the sport anyway because it is not a particularly risky or expensive endeavor. Lick has the City College pool leased for the entire academic year; during the fall, the pool remains unused (with the exception of cross country team attempts to run in it).
“This season will serve as a foundation year,” says Smith. “We’ll start from the bottom and work our way up.”
Today, Lick-Wilmerding has a facility, a coach, and a team filled with athletes who are ready to compete. The only thing they lack is competition. With the exception of Marin Academy in San Rafael, no other schools in the Bay Counties League play water polo.
However, Coach Ellingson remains undaunted. Outside of San Francisco, he knows, there are larger schools that have established teams and play in competitive leagues. Ellingson hopes to join one of these leagues by next year.
The lack of competition does not disillusion the athletes; they still practice with ferocity. Ellingson puts his team to work. After warmups of treading water and passing, the athletes are subjected to a brutal conditioning routine consisting of quick swim sprints, calisthenics, and more treading water. From an outsider’s point of view, it looks like Satan’s aquatic version of Jazzercise, sans the jazz.
“Swimming is hard, but water polo is fun,” says Trent Hommeyer ’16 as he flops out of the water, exhausted. “It’s the swimming part that kills me.”
After the conditioning, the team splits between swimming laps and pass-and-shoot drills. For a mostly inexperienced team, the shooting is particularly impressive. The athletes whip shot after shot, painting the corners of the goal.
“One of the most interesting things about water polo is the diversity of the group,” says Dave Egerter, father of Aubrey Egerter ’17 and assistant coach to J.D. Ellingson. “You have some really experienced kids, and some kids who are just getting into the water.”
Nora Stacy ‘17 confirms Egerter’s claim. “The only experiences I’ve had [with water] were swim lessons as a kid,” she says. Ellingson added that “three to five people couldn’t even swim” when practice first began in September.
Though its ranks consist largely of rookies, the team also includes several veteran players. These players have served as mentors and leaders on the team.
“A lot of people were terrified of water polo, so it’s nice to ease their fears,” says Kelby Kramer ’17, a long-time player of the sport.
“It’s actually really fun,” says Evan Fuller ’18, a water polo player who gained her experience with the sport through playing in competitive leagues in Orinda. “I love watching people get it; it’s like watching people try to solve a really hard puzzle and get that ‘a ha!’ moment…it’s really rewarding.”
“[This team] is typical of Lick,” says Mr. Egerter. “It doesn’t matter what you bring to the party: you’re part of it.”