Countdown to Preseason Polls: The Friends And Enemies
Birmingham, Mich. - In the late 1980's and early 1990's, the Birmingham district overpowered the state in Water Polo on the boys side.
Over a span of nine years, a Birmingham School played for the State Title eight times, with Groves winning four in a row, and Seaholm winning two.
Today, developing Water Polo in one of the most powerful swimming areas is a big target. To improve the level at the high school season, the two schools have teamed up to run the Detroit Water Polo Club.
"Although fierce rivals, our teams (Groves and Seaholm) have integrated so well in the club setting that it has never been an issue," Groves boys head coach Bob Sala said. "The kids are able to improve their skills and become better members of our 'water polo community' since we started this."
Detroit Water Polo Club encompasses a wide area. The closest club team is Wolverine, servicing the Ann Arbor area.
"So far our DPC has seen huge growth since (Seaholm Boys Head Coach) Josh Stephens and I started it and the enthusiasm we see for this endeavor is boundless. In addition, it has allowed our surrounding schools (Lake Orion, Troy, Walled Lake) to grow their programs as well. In the beginning we assumed it may just be kids from our district, but the interest was so broad we opened up to all boys and girls in the surrounding areas that cared to join."
The trip between Groves and Seaholm is 1.8 miles. It requires zero turns. But for a long time, the gap was much wider from an emotional standpoint. While the games remain hotly contested, girls head coach Kellie Howe has seen the benefit of joining forces.
"When I was a student athlete playing Water Polo at Seaholm, it was almost taboo to be friends with our rivals at Groves," Howe said. "But today, I see how these athletes interact at DPC and see it translate to the pool for the Groves vs. Seaholm game. The friendships they have developed have created a new caliber of play between them. It can be fun to beat your rival in a game - but it can be even more fun to beat your friend. I see the athletes who know each other working harder to beat each other because they know all of each others moves. They need to learn new ones and practice new plays to get by their DPC teammates. It is raising the quality of play across Birmingham."
Though COVID has interrupted much progress in the process of advancing Water Polo, a contact sport that can't be played masked, there is promising data for the polo scene in southeastern Michigan.
"The growth potential for club water polo is definitely there," Sala said. "Before COVID we saw upwards of 60 boys regularly attend our club practices and tournaments. We also started a middle school division for DPC and the participation has been trending upward. Our biggest challenge is finding enough pool time and space for them all."
Middle school water polo has been a key figure in growing Water Polo on the West Side of the state. That DPC has been able to open a division at the middle school level is a huge development for the East Side of the state.
The prominence of swimming in the area has always made Birmingham a sleeping giant for Water Polo. The Seaholm boys team has dominated the last decade. Groves' boys swimming has been a perennial top five threat. The Seaholm girls swim team has gotten over the top to become a multi-state champion in the last ten years.
"We have been fortunate that our AD's and swimming coaches in the District recognize the benefits of mult-sport student athletes," Sala said. "Although not all of swimmers at Groves elect to play water polo (some are year round swimmers with MI club affiliations), most do.
It certainly gives the boys a nice diversion from swimming; as team sports are by nature more social and the guys get to participate with their best friends for a full two seasons per year. We have also benefited from a supportive group of summer swim clubs as we look to integrate water polo in these summer clubs as a 'year-round' sport."
For Sala though, the biggest asset as it pertains to growth, is encouraging cross-sport cooperation.
"It benefits both swim and polo as I strongly encourage otherwise hesitant polo players to swim at Groves as a way to improve their speed for water polo," Sala said. "It really is a 'win-win' situation."
The key isn't athletes choosing one over the other. Sala's example of encouraging his Water Polo athletes to swim is just one example of how the two sports can work together on a larger level.
Another key to creating water polo growth has always been peer-to-peer word of mouth.
"Many of the upperclassmen have been invaluable to recruit for the team," Howe said. "Often I will ask new players how they heard of the sport and the most common answer is simply so-and-so told me to try it out during swim season."
As for their outlooks on the coming season?
"Our 2021 squad will look to improve from a disappointing 2019 post-season that ended at Districts," Sala said. "We are blessed have have three returning starters and a strong bench, most of whom contributed significantly in the 2019 campaign. Standout players include Seniors Ryan French, Rocco Prindle, and Goalie Max Zalewski (all team captains). Our goal is to make it to States and I am optimistic our players up to the task this season."
"Emily Jacoby (goalie/captain), Katie Gillette, Elise Liddell (captain), and Juniors: Penny Lange (captain) and Lauren Terlep (captain) are key returners. These girls are dedicated and hungry for a title. Their eyes were set on states last year with the help of our graduated seniors who missed out on a season," Howe said. "This year they are in it to prove Seaholm and Birmingham as a whole has been building up potential for years and now it is our time to become a water powerhouse in Michigan."
How two rivals with very little road and plenty of heated exchanges in the water separating them teamed up to create more opportunities for Water Polo to be played at a high level is how the MWPA will continue to flourish.
Fans can check out playing opportunities outside of the MWPA near them by visiting the Offseason Playing Opportunities Page.