For many years, water polo has been a distinguished part of club sport culture on the Knox campus. Celebrated for its initiatives of inclusivity and fun-loving competition, the women’s team recently attended the Division III water polo Conference Championships on April 21-22, hosted by Grinnell College. The weekend yielded yet another impressive spring season finish for Knox, with a third place win overall and a victory over St. Mary’s College.
“I think [water polo] is relatively new in terms of us being a pretty solid team,” says junior and women’s water polo captain Emma Newman. “Like it started off very strong [at Knox], and there were a couple years where it was a little bit weaker, and now we’re rebuilding. So I think that our presence on campus just recently became bigger.”
Water polo is divided into two seasons at Knox, a co-ed season in the fall and a women’s season in the spring. Low numbers in terms of turnout from male players has unfortunately left little opportunity for establishing a men’s team and consequently an individual men’s season on campus, but this has not stopped male players from participating in water polo outside of fall season.
In the spring, male players are encouraged to attend women’s practices and support the team from the bench, according to Newman and fellow co-ed captain and junior Joe Hilger. With both teams missing a coach as of last year, this sideline encouragement from male players is pivotal in making every athlete as strong as possible for games and competitions.
Hilger, who is also a member of the Knox men’s swim team, has been led by long-time men’s and women’s swim head coach, Jonathan Powers. Powers’ concurrent coaching relationship with water polo ended in 2016 as the result of an National Collegiate Athletic Association crackdown on coaches whose leadership extended beyond the scope of one individual team.
“A lot of our players are swimmers, so due to NCAA rules, [Powers] can’t coach us in a varsity and a club sport, or else you could technically be breaking practice rules É so we lost [Powers] in terms of a coach [two years ago].” Hilger said.
The absence of a coach has not interfered with water polo’s upward trajectory, however. Over the past year, Hilger and Newman have assumed their leadership positions as captains for the 2017-2018 seasons and successfully employed their combined fifteen years of water polo experience, helping to maintain the strength of the whole team as a result.
“I learned [to play water polo] here É I started playing when I was a freshman,” Hilger said of collegiate affiliation with the sport. “I started swimming here too. I came out the first day [of water polo practice] just for the hell of it, and it was a really nice group and they taught me how to play and it just kept going from there.”
Newman has been involved in the water polo community for 10 years, having come to Knox from the outskirts of San Francisco, Calif., where water sports like sailing, surfing, wakeboarding and water polo are extremely popular. “I’ve been playing [water polo] since fifth grade,” Newman, now finishing up her third year at Knox, explained. “I think [one’s experience with water polo] depends on where you are, regionally. I know that on the west coast, it’s huge.”
With all of their knowledge and experience at their fingertips, Hilger and Newman were excited to make the addition of four female water polo players this year to a team that had previously been comprised of nine, after the loss of two seniors last year. Sophomores Kyra Huffman and Cayne Randle were two new athletes added to the 2018 spring roster, neither having played the sport before. Randle plays for Knox women’s soccer, while Huffman, who comes from a multi-sport background and currently starts for Knox varsity women’s basketball, found the transition into playing water polo effortless and exciting.
“It’s been really cool. The team was really accepting of all these new players and so they were really helpful and took the time to help me learn how to swim and tread, so [the transition] was really easy,” Huffman explained. “I had no idea how to play water polo [before this year]. My best friend used to play in high school so I knew a little bit, but [the team at Knox] made it pretty easy [to learn how to play]. [Water polo] is like a mixture of all these other sports that I’ve played.”
Huffman and Randle are both members of the Delta Delta Delta sorority at Knox along with Newman, who says she encouraged her sorority sisters to join water polo but that Huffman and Randle were mostly independent in making the transition, having become familiar with the team’s established presence on campus and their atmosphere of inclusiveness.
“I think a lot of [the reason that Huffman and Randle joined] was self-motivated,” Newman explained. “I think that they had heard from different people that it was a fun thing, and we also try to emphasize that we take literally everyone. If you want to learn the sport or you want to learn how to swim, or whatever. I think that that was one of the main reasons they were drawn to it.”
With a team of 13 motivated athletes, women’s water polo travelled to Grinnell, Iowa last weekend to compete in conference. They went 2-3, having played their biggest competitors, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and Carleton College on Saturday, losing to Saint Mary’s on Sunday in the semi-finals and obtaining a third place win overall. Newman says that in the past few years, Knox water polo has performed well, having garnered multiple second place wins in the past at the midwest conference championships.
“This year, we had lost a couple seniors and some strong players, so I think that coming in third is awesome.”
“We had goals scored by almost everybody,” Hilger said of the team’s performance.
As for now, the women’s water polo season is over, but many players are looking forward to going to conference next year and placing yet again, with another successful co-ed season to look back on.