Water Polo: Competitive, Rough & Fun
In 2002, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) sanctioned water polo as a state sport; prior to that it was strictly a club activity. Over the years more schools have been picking it up. According to Craig Fowles, head water polo coach for the past six years, McHenry High School District 156, “Now we are getting pretty close to 100 teams in the state, making it more competitive and fun.”
Mike Shanahan was the driving force behind water polo activity in the area. He initiated the water polo program and has been the girls swimming coach at McHenry High School since the 1970s.
Played in the spring, water polo is a rough sport. “During competitive varsity games you’re talking busted fingers and noses,” Fowles said. There are many three-sport athletes that are coming through the school swim program and playing polo. These same athletes play soccer or football and are in great shape.
McHenry’s team plays competitors that are fairly distant, with the farthest locations in the southwest suburbs near Aurora and into Chicago. The team is used to spending a tremendous amount of time on buses. Many other schools haven’t started water polo programs simply because they don’t have their own pools.
“Schools that are well-funded have all deep pools which are ideal in which to play water polo,” Fowles said. “When it comes to having a shallow end, it was decided that the net would be bigger because the goalie would not be treading. The number of shallow-to-deep pools in the state is dwindling so it’s difficult to encourage teams to come out here and play us, especially if they have a brand new pool facility.”
Beyond high school, there are Division 1 colleges that have teams, but most of them are West Coast schools with only a few on the East Coast. “The club contingency in college is huge,” Fowles said. “Northern Illinois University is one of these and a lot of my boys go on to play for these club sports.”
There is not an all-girls team at McHenry High School.
“We are the last school in the state that is still co-ed,” he continued. “Currently girls are not allowed to play in varsity games, only in junior varsity games.”
In most high school sports, the season progresses from conference to regionals and then to sectionals.
“Because we don’t have a huge number of teams, water polo goes straight to sectionals,” Fowles said. The team that wins sectionals goes to state and then the state tournament is an 18-team tournament. For the past two years, McHenry High School’s water polo team has been sectional champions and then has gone on to state.
The first few years of Fowles’ teambuilding were rough. “We really didn’t have a strong set of upperclassmen and started a lot of freshmen for varsity,” he said. “Size, speed and strength of the athlete make a difference. We were beat up for the first couple of years, but since then we have been able to build up a team and get a good following. Success is paying off now.” n