COLUMBIA — Andrew Withington gathered the 17 water polo players together at the side of the diving well in theMU Student Recreation Complex. As a player/coach/president, it was Withington’s job to address the team at the Tuesday night practice before the Mizzou Spring Shootout, which the team hosted this weekend. Among other things, Withington talked about his expectations for the team’s behavior.
“It’s easy to get mad at the refs, but no cussing,” Withington, a senior, said. “No fighting.”
Seven teams from around the Midwest came to the tournament, and it was important to make sure they had a good impression of Missouri’s team. It was also hard to find the two referees for the tournament, and Withington wanted their jobs to be as easy as possible.
Listen to Withington talk about water polo for any length of time, and it is clear he wants the sport to gain respect and recognition, and for more people to understand what it is about.
“I’m glad to see more people who have never played before coming out and trying to learn the game,” he said. “I want it to be more open to campus and see if there is more talent out there.”
Best described as a combination of basketball and soccer — with hints of rugby thrown in — while swimming and treading water, the sport is fast-paced and full of goals.
Water polo is often perceived as a brutal sport, but Withington stresses that it is a finesse sport. At the highest levels, the ball zips around the pool from player to player like a basketball team passes on offense. When junior Shea Boyle, the club’s vice president, tries to explain the game to people who have never played, he relates it to basketball.
Boyle compared Withington, who is six feet five inches and 249 pounds, to Shaquille O’Neal.
“He gets in there and people can’t get around him, he just beats up people in the middle,” Boyle said. “Just like Shaq.”
“Everybody with my size in Missouri is pushed towards football,” said Withington, who started water polo as a freshman in high school. “I always played basketball and soccer, and I thought the concept of playing something like basketball with goalies was cool.”
As the hole-man, Withington’s job is to position himself in front of the goal, receive the ball and maneuver for a shot or pass to a player driving towards the goal. In this way he is like a center in basketball.
The similarity to basketball is also apparent when watching freshman Joseph Trad.
If Withington plays like Shaq, then Trad plays like Dwyane Wade or Allen Iverson. Still fresh from his high school career, Trad has strong legs, enabling him to fluidly drive to the goal.
In Missouri’s first game of the Mizzou Spring Shootout against Kansas, which it won 15-7, Trad received the ball 15 yards from the goal in the third period. He quickly drove past one defender, finding an opening in the defense. Stopping five yards from the goal, Trad gave a hard kick, raising his chest out of the water and shot the ball into the lower right corner for a goal. The play was reminiscent of a guard driving for a layup.
Despite these similarities to more common sports, water polo has struggled to gain popularity.
Withington and Boyle have heard many misconceptions. They’ve heard about players sharpening long toenails to scratch opponents, swimsuits being torn off and other brutalities happening under water where the referees cannot see. All those things happen, but they are the exception, not the norm.
“If you’re driving through people in a crowded pool, there’s going to be contact,” Withington said.
Boyle has even been asked if they play on horses, like in polo. For the record, they don’t.
It does not help that in Missouri and most of the Midwest, water polo is a fringe sport played mostly by swimmers looking for something fun to do besides swimming back and forth repetitively.
Most of the players on Missouri’s team are former swimmers and come from St. Louis.
Withington and Boyle said between 70 to 80 percent of the team is from St. Louis, which is the lone city in Missouri to embrace water polo. The sport is popular at the high school level, and there are numerous club teams.
Nationwide, the sport is popular along both coasts and especially in California.
“It’s a California sport, but not an American sport,” Withington said.
There, Boyle says, some schools put it on the same level as football.
At the collegiate level, every champion in both men’s and women’s water polo has come from California. The first men’s championship was held in 1969 and the women’s in 2001.
For water polo players in Missouri, the closest college with a program is Lindenwood in St. Charles, Mo., but it is a Division III school. Missouri plays Lindenwood every year, and while it did not beat the Lions this year, the game was competitive.
Even though St. Louis is a great recruiting base for the water polo team, it has struggled to keep participation up. The 18 players at the Tuesday practice was the most all semester, perhaps the most all year. Typically there are eight to 10 players present.
There are many reasons for this constant battle to increase participation. The players are students first and water polo players second, maybe even third or fourth.
The biggest challenge, however, comes from finances.
At MU, the club sports are run on a tier system based on number of participants and participation dates. These help determine how much money a club team receives from the university. Water polo falls in the lowest tier, meaning it receives the least money.
This battle to receive money led to the team to sit out its league this year with the goal of raising money. It was already in debt $1,500 and did not want to add more to the total. However, this meant the team participated in fewer dates.
“It’s a Catch-22,” Boyle said.
With fewer dates, fewer players want to join the team. With fewer players, the team cannot rise in the tier system. With less money, it cannot enter more tournaments or join the league. It’s a vicious cycle that Withington and Boyle must constantly deal with.
Still, the team has a core group that consistently shows up for practices. For the group, water polo is a part of life.
“I looked on the Missouri Web site before coming, and I was excited to see there was a team because I didn’t want to leave it behind,” Trad said.
Boyle also knew that he wanted to join the team when he came to Missouri. Even though the team has dealt with its share of struggles while he has been a member, Boyle never thought about quitting.
“Even practice is fun,” Boyle said. “Even though we don’t have all the money we need and deal with a bunch of crap, it’s still fun. And when we do have games, it’s worth all the crap we put up with.”
For Boyle, the friendships forged through water polo are one of his favorite aspects of the sport and part of the reason why he continues to play.
“Everybody that plays is a lot like me,” he said. “They came from the same place and are just really easy-going people. It’s competitive in the water, and when we get out, we all know each other and it’s all fun.”