Don’t be confused when Andrew Withington tells you he’s the hole man. Though he says it with pride, it’s no brag about his golf game. Withington plays the nastiest position in a nasty sport, one that requires the strength and size of a low-post bulldozer, the speed of a top-flight sprinter and the hands of a marquee wideout.
He’s the MU water polo club team’s two-meter man, the player also referred to as hole man, and the club’s president. Because of the nature of the sport and the team’s recent troubles, Withington’s positions present challenges both in the pool and on dry land.
When he dons his cap and that hopelessly unflattering suit — nobody this side of Michael Phelps looks good in a Speedo — his worries are physical. Smack in the middle of a sport that often devolves into an underwater cage match, the two-meter man, named for the position’s distance from the goal, is the offense’s primary option.
Nearly every successfully executed play runs through the hole man, and every team worth its ear protectors keeps its best player at the position. A good hole man does everything Shaquille O’Neal does without ever touching solid ground or placing more than five fingers on the ball. In water polo, only the goalies are allowed grasp the rock with both paws, and no player is allowed to touch the pool’s side walls or floor.
As the hole man battles for the opportunity to take a clear shot at the corners of the goal, his teammates act on two universal principles of sound offense: constant motion and the creation of space. The offense swarms with the two-meter man at its center, each player’s feet like the blades of some odd underwater helicopter keeping him afloat and propelling him back and forth. This act, termed egg-beatering for its resemblance to a piece of culinary hardware, gets exponentially more difficult as the match wears on.
Steve Hughes is the club’s vice president, and often plays the position known as point man. Think of him as an amphibious point guard. Hughes said high-caliber players are those who excel at lifting their bodies out of the water, freeing their arms and torso from its resistance.
“You can tell who the really good players are by how high they get out of the water,” he said.
On the defensive side of the pool, the sport gets grimy. The single arm players use to handle the ball is considered a part of the bright yellow orb, and is the defense’s main focus. Defenses attack that arm with vicious slaps and karate-like chops, hoping to create turnovers and disrupt offensive rhythm. Martin Goebel, a sophomore journalism major at MU and one of the team’s stronger players, said the game’s design, one that encourages and rewards aggression, is the sport’s best means for attracting interest.
“When it comes to this game, if you didn’t have that contact, you wouldn’t have any reason to play,” he said.
For every sanctioned above-water attack on the ball-carrier, there are at least three fouls that go unseen beneath the surface. Suit-grabs, elbows, kicks and scratches are legal every time the referee fails to notice them, and while most players are slow to admit their underwater transgressions, the sport would likely win an unwanted prize for dirtiest defensive play in all of athletic competition. Officials check fingernails before each match, but savvy defenders have been known to spend months growing out toenails to enhance their sub-surface weaponry. Goebel said that while that underwater contact is central to the game, defense gets more refined at the college level.
“There’s playing aggressive, and there’s playing dirty,” he said. “And those are two very different things.”
As if Withington’s time in the hole isn’t taxing enough, when he pulls his 6-foot-4 frame from the pool, his responsibilities as club president kick in. Withington says his objective is to “bring some legitimacy” to a program that was evicted from Missouri Valley Conference club play when it failed to appear at the conference’s annual tournament three years ago because of a lack of interest.
That process centers on attracting players to an exhausting game, one that requires extensive training as well as conditioning. Withington said that while the team is dripping with talent, a lack of depth prevents the squad from finishing games.
“A lot of the time, we’ll win the first half,” he said. “But by the time the second half comes around, we’re just too tired.”
Withington also attributed the team’s numbers problem with the sport’s relative anonymity in the Midwest, especially when compared with its popularity on the coasts.
“On the West Coast, they play it like soccer,” he said. “Out there, everybody plays water polo.”
Around here, however, experienced players are much harder to find.
“We’re making a concerted effort to get the word out,” he said. “With 25,000 undergraduates at this school, we should be able to field a good team.”
Mix quirky players with a quirky game, and things can get, well, quirky. Hughes falls squarely into the category. As his teammates pound on each other during a Sunday evening practice, he quips something terribly ironic, a comment disproved the instant it’s uttered.
“We’re not exactly the picture of athletic prowess,” he said with a smirk.
Look again, and one might realize the team is exactly that.