Eagles finding success with grueling sport of water polo

Staff Photo: John Bohn Will Veniez (16), left, battles Mitch Kyle (19), right, during Wednesday's  practice of the Collins Hill water polo A team in Buford Wednesday.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Will Veniez (16), left, battles Mitch Kyle (19), right, during Wednesday's practice of the Collins Hill water polo A team in Buford Wednesday.


Staff Photo: John Bohn Kyle Crandall (8), right, gains control of the ball while Taylor Aguirre (9), left, defends during a Collins Hill water polo A team practice in Buford Wednesday evening.


Staff Photo: John Bohn Evan Fredericksen, goalie for the Collins Hill water polo A team, sets up to defend his net during a practice in Buford Wednesday evening.


Staff Photo: John Bohn Mitch Kyle (19), a member of the Collins Hill water polo A team, advances the ball down the pool during Wednesday evening's practice in Buford.

On the surface, the water is a churning mass.

Arms fly and flash as players fight for position and possession.

Under the surface, it's an even more physical battle.

Water polo garners comparisons to other sports for its demands on the body and mind.

Wrestling, basketball, soccer and cross country get mentions.

But Collins Hill assistant coach Phong Nguyen, who helped start the school's program with Jenny Weaver and Brian Collins, summed it up succinctly.

"It's the endurance of a marathon, the contact of hockey and the strategy of chess," Nguyen said.

Collins Hill had to draw students from other sports to start filling its roster four years ago.

The swim team, which Weaver coaches, was a natural fit. The water polo season runs from August right up to when swimming begins, making it an excellent training option.

But the Eagles also got kids from football and baseball.

None of them had any experience with water polo.

Some of them were hooked after one practice. One grueling practice.

"Miserable," senior Mallory Weaver said with a laugh. "But it was totally worth it."

Will Callander, a captain of the A team, didn't start swimming competitively until his freshman year. A few seniors in his weight-training class convinced him to come out for water polo.

"After the first practice, I knew that was my sport," Callander said.

Callander played baseball for 13 years.

"So I picked up the shooting aspect of it pretty quickly," Callander said. "I got better at the swimming and, therefore, better at water polo. I just love the sport.

"There are a lot of analogies to wrestling in the water, mixed with basketball. It's similar to cross country for the endurance, how they run a 5K. Because you seem like you're done and there's a whole other half of the game to play."

His co-captain, Michael Britt, is a former offensive lineman.

"Football kind of helped," he said. "That strength and being able to use your hands."

For Collins Hill, success has bred interest.

The Eagles were undefeated and won the state title in their first season.

"We definitely didn't expect that," said head coach Brian Collins, who started playing with a club team during his senior year at Shiloh and went on to play for Georgia. "Once we won our first game, we just kept rolling from there. We worked really hard that first year and it all came together."

Collins Hill has been runner-up at state the last two years and is motivated to return to the top of the podium.

The state tournament, a 16-team bracket, starts Saturday at the Cumming Aquatic Center. The Eagles are ranked No. 1 and have yet to lose this season. In fact, the only team to beat Collins Hill's A squad in four seasons is St. Pius.

"One of our strengths is our depth," Collins said. "Our A team fields 16 players and they all get to play in the game.

"It takes a lot out of you. Only the fittest, only probably the top 10 percent of athletes in the league could play an entire game."

One of the most difficult things to master about the sport is what's considered resting. Treading water using an egg-beater kick is the recovery time.

"It's not natural," said Weaver, one of the captains of the B team.

Her fellow captain, sophomore Brooke Phillips, swam for 10 years before joining the water polo team and she found it just as difficult.

"It's really hard to pick up on," Phillips said. "But once you get it, it's the easiest part of the sport.

"Swimming seems fast-paced, but water polo is a lot faster and a lot more intense."If learning the egg-beater was a consensus pick for hardest skill, the other recurring theme with players and coaches was how close this Collins Hill team is.

They see each other at least five days a week for practice or games and spend their scant off time hanging out together.

"I couldn't ask for a better season," Weaver said. "I'm really sad it's ending."

"We're one big family," Phillips said. "I'm so glad I get another two years to play."